By reaching out dramatically to our neighbours and other major powers so rapidly after winning the general election, has Narendra Modi been unusually pro-active or unexpectedly defensive? Inviting immediate neighbours and Mauritius to the swearing-in ceremony is out-of-the-box thinking that underlines the importance India intends attaching to improved relations with neighbours and to ties of kinship with more distant countries with sizeable populations of Indian origin. Affirming India’s natural leadership of our region might also have been in mind. All this would be in tune with Modi’s inspired style of functioning.
On the other hand, for 12 years Modi has been ceaselessly projected as a divisive, communal and polarizing figure by the political class, the media and intellectuals in India. This campaign has also tarnished his image in similar circles abroad. Conscious of this image-deficit, Modi may have wanted to immediately disarm concerns about his ascension to power by going out of the way to signal moderation and willingness to engage without prejudice. How will this unforeseen political messaging be understood abroad? Some, sceptical about Modi, may see in these tactical moves to first shape external opinion favourably by acting contrary to expectations and then, with the political space created, pursue India’s interests vigorously in line with the “India First” ideology.
Others, more open-minded, may see Modi’s moves reflecting a sense of responsibility that normally accompanies power. They would reason that Modi could be a divisive figure to win elections but has to be a unifying figure to govern successfully, especially given his development focus that can get blurred if peace and stability are disturbed inside and outside the country. His early initiatives could thus be construed as well-considered steps to stabilize India’s external environment and alter the perception that as a strong, decisive and politically combative person he will be a problematic interlocutor.
If Modi is right in wanting to give priority to the economy, improve investment sentiment and revive growth, and to this end pursue conciliatory policies, the question remains how far he can go in this direction. Can conciliatory policies be sustained if others expect their demands to be met but are unwilling to respond to our concerns? A related question is whether our seeming anxiety to remove the apprehensions of others might actually reduce pressure on them to accommodate a presumably more assertive government in New Delhi. Looked at differently, would they not have reason, as before, to press India for concessions while they make none themselves?
China’s alacrity in engaging the Modi government, for instance, is without promise of moving forward on the border issue. The Chinese foreign minister, in spite of the opportunity given him to be the first foreign leader to greet the new government, has almost mockingly dismissed our objections to the stapled visas regime for Arunachalis by calling it a “goodwill gesture” — a flexible “special arrangement”, which does not undermine or compromise “our respective positions” on “big parts” of disputed territory. This hollows out the relevant guiding principle for border settlement against disturbing settled populations. China’s strategy is to consolidate border management mechanisms that would limit, in its view, provocative patrolling by India while they have freedom of action in areas they consider incontestable. Its declared aim is to reduce the impact of border differences on bilateral relations to the “minimum level”.
China’s conduct does not merit the positive way in which we officially project our bilateral ties. Our strategic partnership is not founded on Chinese friendship and goodwill. On the contrary, China is most responsible for strategically damaging us gravely by arming Pakistan with nuclear and missile technologies. Its policies in the rest of our neighbourhood undermine our interests. It is the only country, along with Pakistan, that has territorial claims on us. We are being drawn towards China because of its phenomenal economic success, not any alignment of regional interests. In the economic domain, too, we are not recipients of any Chinese largesse. China has limited our access to its domestic market; the trade gap last year of $31 billion is unsustainable. We now seem to be courting Chinese investment in infrastructure and industrial parks, for which Wang Yi expects “more preferential policies and investment facilitation for Chinese businesses”, implying no significant results for now. Based on existing ground realities and assessment of future Chinese policies, India and China, contrary to Wang Yi’s claim are not “natural partners”. Even a stronger economic relationship is no guarantee of the solidity of future ties as is shown by the China-Japan equation, which too is vitiated by territorial differences.
Getting the relationship back on track with the United States also does not mean addressing our concerns about its Pakistan policy, the lack of transparency in its dialogue with the Taliban, its new immigration law, the imposition of costs on our IT industry by hiking the fees for H1B and L1 visas, the lack of movement on the totalization agreement, the targeting of our trade, investment and policies on intellectual property rights in response to sectoral interests of select US corporations, closing the Devyani Khobragade case and removing Modi from the visa blacklist. It actually means that India is delivering on US demands, those of boosting the confidence of foreign businesses, lifting foreign investment caps in the insurance and defence sectors, placing more orders for US defence equipment, opening the market to US agricultural products, removing local content rules in certain product areas, revising our nuclear liability legislation and so on, with the the American vice-president’s mirage of a $500 billion annual India-US trade in the next five years in view.
In Pakistan’s case, too, the more we reach out to it, the more it expects us to make concessions. We have not been able to deal with this predicament because of our urge to engage Pakistan. Its long-standing narrative is that India blocks peace efforts by refusing to respond to its overtures, including not taking advantage of Nawaz Sharif’s declared goodwill towards us. Unsurprisingly, Pakistanis are complaining that Nawaz Sharif’s India visit has produced nothing substantial even though he defied the military and the Islamists to attend Modi’s swearing-in. Pakistan’s touchstone for progress in relations is a “result-oriented” dialogue on Kashmir, culling the “low-hanging” fruit of Siachen and Sir Creek, addressing Pakistan’s water-related concerns, without it delivering on terrorism, trials of those responsible for the Mumbai massacre, curbing jihadi leaders or granting “most favoured nation” status to India. To finesse India’s desire to change the dialogue format, Nawaz Sharif has cleverly proposed raising the dialogue on Kashmir and terrorism to the political level, knowing that this will enable him to demonstrate success in enhancing the profile of the Kashmir issue and, as before, side-step India’s terrorism concerns by claiming that Pakistan is a bigger victim of terrorism. He also proposes joint mechanisms to deal with unfounded Indian accusations.
The new government is right to focus on the priority task of building a prosperous India in collaboration with all partners, existing and prospective. The challenge is to engage and obtain reciprocal responses from others, which is not assured unless our policies are backed by national strength.