T’is winter-time and all the established media houses and media wannabees schedule their elite outreach programmes to try and make themselves relevant to policymaking and policymakers, to wit the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, etc. Just got back from a shindig arranged by WION TV network on “World Order: Talking Diplomacy” where the keynote speaker Ram Madhav, BJP General Secretary and in-house expert on foreign policy and presumably also strategy, dilated on the topic “Strategically Decisive India 2020”, which was a good reason to attend it.
Narendra Modi, he said, has added several “new dimensions” to India’s foreign policy. Elaborating further, Madhav said that the prime minister had (1) “shed romanticism” and the institutional “resistance” to engaging with other countries, which is judged by the number of visits by the PM and foreign minister; (2) adopted “practicalness”and proactiveness”; (3) de-hyphenated India and Pakistan, and compelled the countries of the world to take a “stand alone approach” to India; and, most importantly, (4) to the 5 panchamrit principles, he added, few more, namely, samman (respect and honour for Indians and India), samvad — “greater engagement with “people [abroad] who matter” that helped reshape the country’s image in the world and also involved effective “diaspora diplomacy”, “suraksha” (security for Indians and India) and “”samriddhi” — the cultural angle. As regärds the last, Madhav said Modi does not hesitate to to use Indian culture as a diplomatic tool, or as he put it, he “does not mind wearing culture on his sleeve”.
He then said — and this is a very ambitious formulation — that in the strategic realm, “India needs to have its own club”, that India’s leadership has to be asserted before it is accepted, and that the defunct SAARC and BIMSTEC type orgs won’t do because India cannot lead them. This club, he added, will have to “turn east” and India will have “to rise as leader in the Indo-Pacific”. The current international institutions, he averred, by way of filling in the background, cater to Europe and the West and not to Asia and the East. This fact, he implied, is what offered Delhi the opportunity to conceive of this club. Further, he attributed this new nomenclature of the Indo-Pacific, as replacement for Asia-Pacific, to Modi’s efforts during the Obama Administration. The question is, he observed, “How to make India central in the Indo-Pacific region”.
All these things are expected, per Madhav, to turn India into a strategically decisive country by next year!
In this region, moreover, managing China will, according the Madhav, require “skill” and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) won’t be “comprehensive without India”and hence that Delhi can afford to wait until its conditions (in the main, insistence on the 35% value add in products sourced from the RCEP member states to prevent China channeling exports of finished consumer and capital goods to India via third countries) are met. RCEP being “äll about markets” it cannot do without the vast Indian market, he maintained.
Replying to a question about the religion-based Citizens (Amendment) Bill (CAB), he made the cogent point that it was based on the 1950 Assam Expulsion Act (AEA) that Jawaharlal Nehru promulgated which addressed the problems caused by Muslims from the then East Pakistan streaming across the border into India and upsetting the local ethnic composition and disturbing the peace, which pattern continued after 1971. And that CAB, like AEA, was necessitated by Partition of India along religious lines. Whence these Bills eased/will ease the absorption of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians expelled from, or pressured to leave, Pakistan, Bangladesh, but deny citizenship status to incoming Muslims, including the Rohingyas from Myanmar.
Finally, Madhav blamed the prevailing “market sentiment and climate” for the economic downturn in the country.
This is a full slate of issues on which Madhav voiced his opinions. The points he has made helps us understand the way the Modi regime perceives the world, crafts Indian foreign policy, and sees its own successes. Let us broadly but briefly assess these claims.
With respect to the supposedly new dimensions of foreign policy introduced by Modi, one can take issue with many of them. It is easy to contend, for example, that eliminating policy resistance to engaging with the West was, in truth, originated by the Manmohan Singh government with its disastrous nuclear deal with the US and its drumbeat of pleas for admission into such tech cartels as the Nuclear Suppliers Group — both policy streams Modi has persisted with. However, Modi did pioneer the opening up to Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, until now when these countries have for the first time and in their national interest set aside religion as a factor to see a stable India as a long term market for their energy and as a safe investment destination. That it has thus marginalized Pakistan’s hitherto consequential role in this sub-region is a dividend that may or may not have been anticipated. And more, it is here in the Gulf area that the claim of de-hyphenation packs credibility with the Arab states closing in with India at the expense of Pakistan. Elsewhere though, Europe, US, and the rest of Asia faced with India’s reflexively anti-Pakistan attitude at every turn has only forced these countries to junk the standalone approach to India they may have adopted during the Manmohan Singh era when Delhi strove for the easing of relations, to naturally react by re-hyphenating these terribly squabbling South Asian states, much to India’s detriment.
Ridding Indian foreign policy of romanticism is fine but where’s the evidence of proactive measures? There has been a lot of tall talk about security cooperation with Indian Ocean states, countries of the Southeast Asian littoral, and with Japan but little that is concrete, unless one counts the Shinkansen 5E series high-speed Mumbai-Ahmedabad link that’s run into rough weather with the new Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray withdrawing permission for its construction in that state, thereby grounding this flagship Indo-Japanese venture. Modi has not disturbed even little the old normal of the Indian government and MEA working at a maddeningly slow pace, reducing this government to all promise and no delivery on projects Modi has offered the host states on his frequent travels. The Kaladan connectivity project that was to plug Myanmar into the Indian economy is nowhere near completion some 20 years after it was initiated. The Development Assistance Programmes (DPAs) I & II in MEA with a brief to oversee timely and within cost delivery of Indian funded projects are a scandal, and has generated more ill will, doubt and distrust of India over the years in Southeast Asia, Indian Ocean area and Central Asia than any good they might have done. This perfectly deplorable state of affairs hasn’t changed an iota during Modi’s tenure. In this context it is hard really to see even a glimmer of success of Indian foreign policy vis a vis the developing world.
The panchamrit + 4 principles are fine on paper, but have created problems. For instance, the successful diaspora diplomacy is the spawn of samvaad. But in asking diasporic Indians to be national assets for their new countries it may have reinforced NRIs to become wielders of foreign influence in India, which in any case they were inclined to do. This is most evident in the India-origin Americans working to get Indian national interests more in sync with US policies.
The India-led club is a mite too ambitious a concept for Modi because his policy stance has so far oscillated between compromising with China and accommodating the US, something that makes nonsense about India’s pretend autonomy while making Asian states of the Indo-Pacific wary because it mirrors what they themselves are doing. In which case, what benefits do they gain from joining India’s club? Had India stood its ground and not surrendered leverage and turf on virtually every issue of contention with US and China, had Modi not backpedaled on the radical economic reforms he had promised in 2014, removed the dead hand of government from the economic sphere with rapid privatization of the public sector, incentivized skilling programmes and employment generation schemes on a war footing and otherwise propelled the growth rate instead of doing nothing and seeing the economy now tank, India presently a 2.73 trillion economy despite all the systemic restraints and constraints, would have achieved double digit growth, ensured the PM another two terms in office for certain, and set India up as a coming power.
It isn’t at all clear how absent any administrative reforms and radical economic overhaul, a strategically decisive India will emerge, much as all of us might want earnestly to believe that it would somehow do so even without any course correction.
If Modi carries on as he has done to-date, BJP will be lucky if it can put a lid on the growing discontent of the masses inevitably spilling out on to the streets. In this situation, BJP may not survive the 2024 general elections and Modi’s reputation is unlikely to remain untarnished. Madhav’s claims about an India club may then come back to mock Modi. I mean which nation would want to emulate India, or be led by it? And why?