At first sight, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy appears awe-inspiring. The sheer energy he has invested in his 46 foreign visits has taken him to destinations that were ignored or played down by his predecessor — Central Asia, Indian Ocean Region, the Persian Gulf, besides the usual staples of the US, western Europe, China and Japan. Their outcome, however, is a matter of opinion.
There has been a sharp rise in FDI into India, but whether it was due to his visits is a question. Foreign visits do have the virtue of concentrating the attention of the various arms of government to Indian interests in a specific country or region. But thereafter what matters is follow-up.
Actually, the big problem is in deciding what exactly is the government’s goal — attracting investment and technology, or political support for a seat in the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or countering terrorism, or building a coalition to check China and Pakistan. Since the government of India does not put down its goals in writing, you can assume that it is all of the above, with no specific prioritisation.
In one, arguably the most important, area of foreign policy, however, the Modi government has failed. This is with China and Pakistan individually, as well as as a combine. It is no secret that neither of these can be considered friendly and India has serious disputes with them. But since 42 per cent of our land borders are with them, our inabililty to break the Sino-Pak nexus is a significant failing which, in all fairness, cannot be blamed entirely on the Modi government alone.
In the case of Pakistan, the reasons for the estrangement are clear. Indian relations with Islamabad have never been very good and the slow poisoning of the Nawaz Sharif government by the Pakistani military has put paid to any effort by New Delhi to improve relations in the last two years.
As for China, the reasons are more complicated. In some measure, they are a result of a gauche handling of China by Modi and his team. They worked under the impression that quick deals with Beijing were possible and Modi’s personality would be enough to score a breakthrough. However, things haven’t quite worked out and the border talks are frozen. India remains suspicious of China’s One Belt One Road initiative and keeps Chinese investments at an arm’s length, so Beijing sees no payoff in backing India’s membership to the NSG or abandoning Pakistan on the issue of terrorism. In short, in the give and take of international intercourse, Beijing does not see what India has on offer in exchange for the things it wants from China.
In all this, New Delhi is the loser. If it thinks that the US will succumb to its campaign and sanction Islamabad on the issue of terrorism, it is mistaken. The US has been there and done it and found that it does not help. Indeed, as it pulls out from Afghanistan, Washington finds that it needs Islamabad more, not less. Afghanistan is a benighted land which, if left to itself, will descend to chaos. But the US cannot afford to allow that to happen to nuclear-armed Pakistan. In any case, US interests go beyond this negative consideration — Washington has dealt with the generals and understands them well and it realises that even to deal with chaotic Afghanistan, it needs to retain its ties with Islamabad. More germane is the fact that having invested what it has in “human resources” in Pakistan’s army and civil society, the US has important assets which it would not like to abandon, especially when China is stepping up its ties through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
It is difficult for Modi government’s supporters to swallow this, but the best option for India is to go back to the beaten track of engagement. This time, engage with both China and Pakistan. Indian policy needs to understand that Pakistan remains a failing state with multiple centres of authority, and engagement with each of them can only be at varying levels of satisfaction. Nothing here should imply that we let our guard down from the point of view of our security.
New Delhi has dithered between Islamabad and Beijing, hoping that some breakthrough in our bilateral ties will help to break that nexus. Instead, what India needs to do is to sally forth to meet that nexus and transform it through its economic power and diplomacy. Notwithstanding what China has on offer in the CPEC, Pakistan’s economic future lies in its ties with India and South Asia.
There are elements in Pakistan — its civilian government, civil society, businessmen and ordinary folk — who realise that good ties with India are a necessary condition for the transformation of their country. What is needed is an imaginative leadership in New Delhi that can link its economic ambitions with a transformational agenda in South Asia, instead of getting trapped in the minefields of the past.
(This article first appeared on Mid Day and ORF Website)