The external policies of the Modi government are being liberally criticised by many, including those who have handled our foreign and security policies under the previous government. There can certainly be different views on whether the present government has erred in its policy choices, but any criticism should be supported by persuasive arguments. The political distaste of the BJP and the RSS in particular, personal antipathy towards Prime Minister Modi or loyalty towards the previous leadership should not be the metrics for making a professional judgment on the perceived failings of the conduct of foreign policy by the current government.
There is a clear continuity in our foreign policy in key areas under the UPA and the NDA governments. The BJP government under former Prime Minister Vajpayee made India nuclear, engaged the US government in strategic discussions to resolve the nuclear issue, which eventually led to the India-US nuclear deal under the Manmohan Singh government. If the latter was heavily criticised for drawing much too close the US, the Modi government has drawn even closer. The dialogue with Pakistan broke down under the previous government and that impasse endures. The policy to engage Russia as a tried and trusted friend even as we develop new partnerships has not undergone any change. Important openings towards the conservative Gulf Sates created by the UPA have been greatly broadened by the NDA. This is also true of relations with Israel. Former PM Manmohan Singh met the Chinese leaders numerous times, so has PM Modi. The Chinese began making aggressive claims on our territory from 2005 on wards engaged in several other provocations such as stapled visas and announcing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, as well as the Depsang incident. The NDA government has had to confront China’s territorial provocations in Doklam, Sikkim and a major one in eastern Ladakh. The Malabar exercises with the US began in the 1990s, resumed under the UPA government and have now been to expanded to Japan and Australia. The Look East policy of the UPA became the Act East policy under the NDA. Priority has been given by both governments to relations with Japan. The Indo-Pacific concept was first formulated by former Prime Minister Abe in his speech to our parliament in 2007, has been in the air in the years that followed and has today evolved under the NDA.
The Modi government has paid far more attention to its neighbours than the previous government, with PM Modi making frequent visits tothe concerned capitals. It has focused far more than its predecessor on maritime security in the Indian Ocean and acquiring the required capabilities to better ensure this. A major maritime partnership has been established with France in the western Indian Ocean. Access to naval bases in the Gulf is now available to the Indian navy. The relationship with ASEAN has continued to be cultivated, with all its leaders present in India on R-Day 2018 as chief guests. From a more restricted India-Africa summit formats in 2008 and 2011 it was enlarged in scope in 2015 with 41 African leaders participating. With the European Union negotiations on a Bilateral Trade Investment Agreement began in 2007 and ran into sand in 2013. At the last India-EU Leaders Summit in May where all the 27 leaders were present, it has been agreed to resume negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement, an Investment Agreement and one on Geographic Indicators. Separately an Enhanced Trade Partnership Agreement has been signed with post-Brexit UK.
Where PM Modi has imposed his thinking and personality more markedly at the international level is in the active wooing of the Indian Diaspora abroad. He has been able to galvanise them with his oratory and his message of confidence in India’s future. The diaspora wants to take pride in India and is receptive to a vision of a strong and resurgent country. His massive rallies, especially in the US and UK, with local politicians present, built his personal image as a leader and that of India and added a new dimension to India’s foreign policy. PM Modi has also promoted India’s soft power and its cultural and religious heritage as a tool of foreign policy which his predecessor did not. In 2014, the UN declared June 21 as Yoga Day annually.
In this background, some of the criticism levelled at India’s foreign policy is often more an expression of the distaste that critics have of the BJP/ Hindutva ideology than its real content. Why should there be a quarrel with his ‘Neighbourhood First policy’. The effort is to build bridges of confidence with them as much as possible, especially because of the China challenge, but this will remain a work in progress because our neighbours will continue to both seek profit from ties with us and keep us also at a political distance by bringing in external actors and respond to the need to cater politically to domestic lobbies. Nonetheless, much progress has been made with Bangladesh and Maldives.
The denigration of Modi’s continues. The argument proffered that India does best when it is most connected to the outside world is disputable (Nehru/Indira Gandhi years and the socialist/license raj era?). To say that in the last few years we are turning inwards, closing our mind and cutting ourselves from the outside world is contrary to facts. India continues to participate actively in international forums, be it the G20, invitations to G7 meetings, those of BRICS and SCO, the initiative to set up the International Solar Alliance, a leadership role in Climate Change negotiations in lieu of a defensive position, reinvigorating ties with Europe, the development of the Indo-Pacific concept, strengthening the Quad, launching new initiatives in the Indian Ocean area, not to mention making available vaccines to neighbours and developing countries to cope with the pandemic, even if the last is now being cynically used by the opposition to attack the government. To say we are convinced we are unique and exceptional and do not need the world is empty criticism. How the so-called ‘vishwa guru’ ambitions of the BJP government is to ‘seek revenge’ is not explained. Being skeptical about India’s aspiration to be a great rising power says more about the mindset of critics than our national ambition. The critique that the BJP’s foreign policy is being used for domestic political purposes is rather superficial. Which country builds a firewall between its foreign and domestic policies? The US in its Iraq war and war on terror, its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the playing up the issue of Russian interference in US elections, our neighbours using the India bogey to do domestic politics, China using so-called external threats to whip up nationalist sentiments and consolidating president Xi’s grip over the country, and so on?
For China experts to argue that China occupied part of the Doklam plateau in Bhutan because we cried ‘victory’ after preventing them from occupying the Zomperie ridge is to deny the government any credit for standing up to China. To argue so superficially about China’s territorial intrusions is surprising. China’s occupation of large swathes of Ladakh, its claims on Arunachal Pradesh, stirring incidents in Sikkim, reclaiming islands, occupying and militarising them in South China Sea is because some ASEAN states cried victory? To treat the current Ladakh stand-off with rhetorical jibes at the government shows how far anti-Modi thinking can go in distorting realities!If the UPA government down played the Depsang incident, calling it acne on the beautiful face of India-China ties, and engaged in behind the scene discussions in order to avoid hardening of positions on both sides if public positions were taken, and all that to give diplomacy a chance, why is the Modi government being dishonest on the far more sensitive and dangerous eastern Ladakh confrontation whereas, by contrast, the UPA government was honest? To claim that after massing 50,000 troops, including during winter, and occupying the Kailash Range heights the Modi government is defending a narrative and not our actual position on the ground shows how deep the antipathy is towards one’s own government. Calling the government’s position on patrolling in Depsang ‘a lie’ is excessive, as it questions the integrity also of the armed forces.
The pro-China inclinations of those who have held key positions in our national security apparatus are apparent in blaming India and China equally for not understanding each other properly (which begs the question about how we have provoked China in the way they have provoked us bilaterally, regionally and internationally all these years), in the arguments that cheap Chinese goods are good for the Indian consumer, in advocating that instead of accelerating decoupling we should, using an ambiguous formula, build a relationship where the dependencies are minimised and the benefits maximised, and in recommending that we remain open to Chinese investments in a controlled manner. In other words, keep the security part separate from the economic part, precisely what China advocates. The most astonishing is the argument that accepts without demur that China is ready to take centre stage, not to build a different world order but defining the existing order differently and improve it. So, it is only semantics and no hard geopolitics and hegemonic ambitions are at play? China, it is argued, merely wants a division of the world between the great powers and that anything outside that is dangerous, and that China is open to negotiation.
For the critics to say in conclusion that India is bigger than any politician or government is an evident dig at Modi/BJP. That also a bureaucrat has been included to make it a triptych is a saving grace.
Kanwal Sibal is a distinguished career diplomat who retired as Foreign Secretary to the Government of India. In 2017, The Government of India awarded him with the Padma Shri award for his distinguished services in the field of Public Affairs.
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