Monday, 30th October 2017

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Ties with neighbour, with eye on voters

Whiff of politics in policy

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 22.07.17
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Narendra Modi

New Delhi, July 21: China was resolutely opposing India's efforts to get the UN to blacklist Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar when in April 2016 the Narendra Modi government decided to pay Beijing back in its own coin - and publicly.

It issued a visa to Uyghur separatist leader Dolkun Isa, labelled a terrorist by China. But less than a week later, it buckled under the realisation that India had undercut its own argument against distinguishing between alleged terrorists on the basis of convenience.

The visa was withdrawn. Isa and other Uyghur leaders were livid at an embarrassed Indian foreign office. The Modi administration's high-stakes attempt at projecting itself as the tough alternative to its predecessors that India needed in standing up to China had backfired.

Three years after Prime Minister Modi unveiled his "neighbourhood first" slogan, a growing section of diplomats and experts in India and neighbouring countries is instead detecting foreign policy approaches coloured by domestic political considerations the region thought it had left behind.

Those concerns, shared with The Telegraph by serving diplomats from many of India's immediate neighbours and by independent experts, coincide with the longest India-China border standoff in three decades, near their tri-junction with Bhutan.

Modi's 2014 victory with the biggest mandate in 30 years had sparked hope across the region of an Indian foreign policy less influenced by electoral politics because his government did not depend on regional parties that had previously held up initiatives with neighbours.

But the drive to project Modi as a strong and perennially successful leader, tensions with key states and a hunger to ensure diplomatic moves also yield political scoring points have replaced those earlier domestic considerations and dented the 2014 hope, the diplomats and experts said.

"A more energetic diplomacy (compared with the UPA) was required but it can be counterproductive if perceived as aggressive," said Atul Mishra, a New Delhi-based foreign policy analyst who has researched the domestic political influences on India's diplomacy.

"Traditionally, for good reason, India's foreign policy has avoided grandstanding. There is a change, some overstepping, there now."

India's foreign policy has never been fully independent of domestic pressures. Some decisions have been influenced by broader perceptions of national peace and stability.

India, for instance, has traditionally tried to avoid taking sides in the Shia-Sunni tensions that frequently explode in West Asia, mindful of the significant populations of both strands of Islam in India.

At other times, foreign policy goals have been subordinated to political survival. During the UPA's second term, India's relations with Bangladesh were at times hostage to the ruling grouping's dependence on Mamata Banerjee's Trinamul Congress.

Pressures from the DMK, another ally, forced then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to boycott a Commonwealth meeting in Colombo, driving Sri Lanka closer to China.

Modi's BJP enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha on its own, so the pressures Mamata or the DMK could bring upon the UPA no longer exist. But alternative considerations have emerged - starting with a greater desire compared with earlier governments to ensure that foreign policy decisions also feed into domestic political rhetoric.

"Every foreign policy issue is also passed through a domestic-scoring-point filter much earlier in the cycle by this government, which means real options are already limited once you get an output from the domestic politics filter," said Pranay Kotasthane, a Fellow at the Bangalore-based think-tank, the Takshashila Institution.

Modi's carefully cultivated image as a strong, decisive leader has encouraged the government to take decisions it might not have otherwise, diplomats and experts said.

India, for instance, has for years responded to brutal attacks by Pakistan-backed terrorists or military personnel in Kashmir by conducting retaliatory raids. But where these reprisals earlier took place at the level of an army unit, and with the aim of sending a signal to Pakistan, the Indian government last September decided the message should also echo within India. Surgical strikes, carried out after the Uri terrorist attack, were made public for the first time.

The Prime Minister's personal initiative in some cases has directly also furthered foreign policy objectives. Relations with Bangladesh - with which the Modi government concluded the land boundary agreement that its predecessor had given up on - have emerged as India's biggest neighbourhood success story over the past three years.

But with Bangladesh too, Modi's domestic political goals are clashing with diplomatic objectives. Heightened tensions with Mamata, who sees the BJP as a rising political threat in Bengal, risk killing prospects of the Teesta water-sharing agreement between India and Bangladesh, especially ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, many in Dhaka fear.

"When it comes to the Teesta, the influence of domestic politics in India that we saw under the previous government has remained intact under Modi," said Delwar Hossain, professor in international relations at Dhaka University, in a phone interview. "The Teesta agreement is seen as a test of India's sincerity here, and India's failure to deliver on its promise remains an irritant in otherwise blossoming ties."

The Modi government, by creating a halo around the Prime Minister and portraying him as exceptionally successful in diplomacy, has also shaped unreasonable expectations, Mishra said.

"There is now this great expectation from domestic audiences that Modi will achieve whatever he wants on the foreign policy front - what I call the qila fatehing (conquering the fort) mindset," he said. "But no government can always be on a roll internationally. Your will, your ambitions, have to correspond to your capabilities."

On the current spat with China, which has accused Indian troops of entering its territory - while Delhi and Thimphu insist the territory is disputed - India has no option but to stay the course, Kotasthane said.

Indian troops are locked in a standoff with their Chinese counterparts on a plateau called Doko La by India, Donglang by China and Doklam by Bhutan since June 16, when China tried extending a road towards a Bhutanese post. Bhutan and India have asked China to stop the road construction. "India can't fold now," Kotasthane said.

But China has indicated it sees more than strategic goals behind India's posture. The Chinese foreign ministry earlier this week cautioned India not try to "achieve political purposes" through the standoff.

And even tiny Bhutan, sandwiched between two giants battling for regional primacy on a plateau Thimphu claims, is beginning to show signs that it is losing patience.

The Bhutanese, a major weekly newspaper in that country, today hit out at those labelling the country either a historic "vassal" of China or a "protectorate" of India.

In an article, its editor Tenzing Lamsang outlined how Bhutan had defied India on a four-nation transit pact and had blocked four Indian hydropower projects because it was unhappy with India's electricity trade guidelines. Bhutan's decision to avoid hurting India's "core interests" is a "conscious choice", Lamsang said - but "it is also not a free ride for India".

"This practical relationship will work if it recognises that both countries are equal partners," Lamsang cautioned. "And any action or lack of it should be in the collective mutual interest and not necessarily skewed in one way."