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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Will Modi realise his superpower aspirations?

Shahab Enam Khan, Parvez Karim Abbasi


The Trimurti of his foreign policy could be his greatest strength. This is the first part of a two-part long form.

The Latin term “Imago Dei” relates to a long held Judeo-Christian theological belief that God created man in his own image. Descending from the lofty realms of theological speculation to the worldlier arena of Indian foreign policy, pundits and analysts have entered into a frenzy of speculation trying to gauge the possible policy changes and course corrections emanating from South Block during Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial tenure.
It can be safely said that the effects of the economic and foreign policy changes of an emerging superpower will reverberate throughout the South Asian landscape. Any misplaced doubt regarding India’s preeminence in South Asia can be safely dispelled by the spectacle of Modi’s prime ministerial swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi.
The sight of all the heads of state from the Saarc region attending the inauguration could be likened to a Rajya Abishek of a Chakravertin Samrat or the Delhi Durbar during the times of the British Raj.
Economic diplomacy lies at the heart of Modi’s foreign policy. Foreign investment and trade opportunities are being assiduously sought, not only from traditional and familiar sources such as the Americans and the Japanese, but also from India’s perceived strategic competitor, China.
A case in point was Modi winning a $20bn pledge from Chinese President Xi Jinping even amidst the border flare-up that coincided uncomfortably during the Chinese president’s visit to India last September. The shrewd Gujarati business acumen has triumphed over saber-rattling and jingoistic nationalism that normally constitutes BJP rhetoric regarding China.
The success of Mr Modi’s “Make in India” campaign relies heavily on large-scale investments from China to revive the job-creating manufacturing sector. This is in line with his previous chief ministerial regime in Gujarat, where he welcomed Chinese investment with open arms.
It remains to be seen if Modi manages to inject sustained double-digit growth in the Indian economy that forms a crucial component in realising its superpower aspirations. The fate of the long-delayed modernisation of Indian defense force and attempts to match Chinese military might is inextricably tied with the health of the economy.
Furthermore, Indian offers of duty reduction, trade facilitation, tied loans to improve transit and connectivity issues, and free trade agreements to its neighbouring South Asian countries are yet to materialise or deliver concrete results in many instances.
The long arm of Chinese trade and investment has made considerable inroads in the region at India’s expense. The Chinese recently proposed the establishment of Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Maritime Silk Road – all of which is calculated to increase Chinese influence in smaller South Asian economies.
These economies, that had formerly courted Indian trade and investment have now more than one option to choose from. The largesse India will be able to offer pales in significance to the Chinese one. Thus, Modinomics, in one sense, is dedicated to retaining Indian economic hegemony in South Asia that the Indian analysts and policy planners had taken for granted.
Many analysts have dubbed the foreign policy regime under Manmohan Singh as the “lost decade” of diplomacy. The deft and subtle diplomacy that had been the hallmark of the land of Chanakya was replaced by a series of erratic, confrontational, and ham-fisted knee jerk reactions. From picking fights with the sole superpower (the unseemly row regarding the visa fraud allegations surrounding Devyani Khobragade) to the trial of the Italian marines related to the Enrica Lexie incident, India had been punching above its weight and souring relations with its Western allies.
The periodic, calibrated border incursions by the Chinese have literally kept the Indian policy-makers and defense establishment on their toes. It has not only served to rein in Indian pretensions to parity with the Chinese, but have effectively prevented India from using the significant Tibetan exile population to fan anti-China unrest in Tibet.
The “Look East” policy of the UPA government, geared towards increased engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, had been largely overshadowed by increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. “The String of Pearls” offensive by the Chinese is increasingly curbing Indian presence in its own backyard. It remains to be seen if Narendra Modi’s proposed transnational “Mausam” initiative can take the edge of the Chinese thrust in the Indian Ocean.
Nearer at home, the Congress-led UPA government was found woefully lacking in combating high profile terrorist attacks such as the 26/11 attack on Mumbai by Pakistani members of LeT (despite having prior intelligence regarding an impending attack).
Lack of effective coordination amongst the various Indian intelligence agencies paved the way for yet another large scale LeT attack on Indian soil following the attack on parliament in New Delhi in 2001.
Despite international condemnation and incontrovertible proof of tacit ISI support for LeT operatives, the Pakistani diplomats managed to pull off a near miraculous escape – a show trial for the ringleaders of LeT was all that the Indian diplomats managed to wriggle out from the Pakistanis. It speaks volumes about South Block’s ineptitude that it could not make use of the proverbial “smoking gun.”
The UPA government can be partially exonerated from failing to solve a six-decade, complex, multifaceted, problem with its archrival Pakistan. However, the sheer negligence it had shown to maintaining and fostering traditionally friendly relationships with neighbouring countries is well-nigh inexcusable.
It is mind-boggling to think that Manmohan Singh had never paid a visit to Bhutan, Nepal, or Sri Lanka during his prime ministerial tenure.
First on the list is Maldives, whose geostrategic importance far dwarfs its territorial size. Of late, the country has been warmly responding to increased Chinese trade and investment. This, in itself, should not be alarming in a globalised milieu.
However, the public dressing-down of the Indian ambassador of Maldives by the Maldivian political leadership and the termination of the $511m contract with a consortium headed by the Indian GMR group for maintenance of the international airport at Male, should not be brushed off lightly.
Mishandling by the South Block during the UPA period is partially to blame for the straining of relations. The Indian support vacillated like a pendulum back and forth from Mohamed Nasheed to Mohammed Waheed Hassan, which further exacerbated ongoing political instability in the archipelago.
This inevitably led to a considerable erosion of Indian credibility in the country. The recent humanitarian relief effort by the Modi government in alleviating the drinking water crisis in Male, is a step in the right direction and will partially reduce anti-Indian resentment.
Sri Lanka provides the classic example of foreign policy bungling by the UPA government under the influence of coalition politics and personal prejudice. The Indian government had previously refused to sell weapons to Sri Lanka in their campaign against LTTE.
This was done to appease the sentiments of the Tamil coalition partner of UPA, DMK. The Sri Lankans then turned to China, Russia, and Pakistan to procure the necessary hardware. This paved the way for increased presence of Chinese and Pakistani military personnel and advisors in Sri Lanka. Ironically, the UPA government then provided tacit consent to the combative President Rajapaksa’s final military campaign to decisively defeat the LTTE.
The LTTE’s role in carrying out the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi may have influenced South Block’s limited involvement in this matter. The Chinese reaped rich rewards for their timely assistance. They have invested in key strategic sectors, ie infrastructure and services in Sri Lanka.
The docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo port is a portent of the increased strategic and commercial ties between Colombo and Beijing. Of late, the defeat of Rajapaksa by his onetime ally, Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential elections could well play in to the hands of the Modi government.
Sirisena, in his presidential campaign, had criticised the exponential increase in Chinese influence on the island nation. Rajapaksa had hinted at RAW involvement in fermenting revolt within his party ranks and orchestrating his electoral defeat.
The new government has stated that it would work to redress the lopsided tilt towards China. The ground reality, though, remains that substantial Chinese investment and trade links would provide it with considerable influence on Sri Lankan policy-makers in the foreseeable future.
Nepal illustrates yet another lost opportunity for a more pragmatic foreign policy involvement from the previous UPA government.
During its first stint in power, the UPA-1 government provided a certain amount of support to the Maoist insurgents or the Communist Party of Nepal.
Thus, South Block was hedging its bet between the traditionally India-friendly Nepali Congress and the Marxists. It was also done to prevent Marxist insurgency from spilling over into restive areas of India such as West Bengal and Bihar and to contain growing Chinese involvement in the mountainous kingdom. It also helped foster agreement amongst the various Nepali political parties, who in turn then launched a concerted movement to bring an end to end to King Gyanendra’s unpopular direct rule.
However, it led things to slide from there. The ordinary Nepalese blamed Indian involvement behind the gridlock in the constituent assembly, delay in writing the constitution, tussle for control between the army and the Maoists, and agitation in the southern plains of Terai for autonomy.
Modi’s arrival on the scene may signal a more evenhanded and subtler approach in line with the Chinese. Modi and Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Nepal (the first by an Indian foreign minister in 23 years) did not show favouritism to any particular party – a gesture contributed in reducing palpable anti Indian resentment.
Bhutan, Nepal’s Himalayan neighbour would prove to be the least daunting of the checklists of Modi’s “neighbourhood first” policy. In fact, Narendra Modi made his first prime ministerial visit to Bhutan, where he again focused on strengthening and reemphasising business, trade (the hydro-electric deal) and strategic ties. Bhutan also will continue to prove a valuable ally to India in combating anti-Indian insurgents from Northeast India.
Probably, the country that the UPA government let down most was Bangladesh during its 10-year-long tenure. The ruling Awami League government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was perceived to be friendly towards India and the Gandhi-Sheikh families also shared close ties.
India has provided strong support to the AL government of Sheikh Hasina since 2008. It had openly expressed its desire to see secular forces in power in Bangladesh as evidenced by former Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh’s visit to Dhaka in November 2013. 

The Dhaka Tribune, 18 February 2015