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Two Years Of Govt Govt | Narendra Modi & Foreign Policy: A Glass Half Full

Sutanu Guru on Narendra Modi's high octane diplomacy and how his ambitious foreign policy goals now confront geopolitical realities

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The introductory piece in this series on two years of Modi analyzed how the hope and euphoria of 2014 have gradually confronted the quicksands of harsh reality by 2016. It argued that while Modi cannot be deemed a failure as his die hard critics would love to; it would be churlish not to admit that he has by and large failed to meet soaring, and often unrealistic expectations of aspirational Indians. This wide gap between massive expectations and actual performance has permeated every aspect of his regime in the last two years. Foreign policy is no different.

Let's look at the early, euphoric days of his regime. The first hint of bold and “out of the box” thinking came during his swearing in ceremony on May 26, 2014. In what looked like a master stroke, Modi invited leaders of all south Asian countries, including Pakistan to the ceremony. His handshake with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif became the talk of the town. Soon after he assumed power, he engaged in serious diplomacy with the two biggest powers of Asia, China and Japan. The Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India while Modi himself went to Japan to engage with the “nationalistic” prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Both visits were declared thumping successes. The climax of this euphoric phase came in September, 2014 when Modi visited the United States. He received a red carpet treatment and had private conversations with American president Barack Obama after being feted as a rockstar at Madison Square Gardens in New York. His no nonsense speech to the United Nations about the perils of looking at terrorists as “ good and bad” was widely appreciated. Since then, it appears to have been a downhill journey; at least in terms of perceived foreign policy gains.

Let's look at what the core foreign policy goals of the Modi were, and continue to be. The first is vastly improved relations in the neighborhood. The second is using a mixture of carrot and stick to,persuade Pakistan to stop exporting terrorism. The third is to use geopolitics as a chess game to contain China and prevent its unrelenting rise as overwhelmingly dominant power of Asia. The fourth is to make the world take India more seriously on issues like terrorism, climate change, trade barriers and investments. How has Modi performed when it comes to achieving the four foreign policy goals?

A charitable way of looking at it would be to say that the Modi foreign policy doctrine is still a work in progress. When it comes to Myanmar, Bhutan and Bangladesh, Modi’s aim of good relations with neighbors has been an unqualified success. Sri Lanka remains and question mark and Nepal has been a disaster. Imagine the goodwill Modi generated during his trip to Kathmandu in 2014 when he also addressed the Nepal Parliament. And look at how bitterly Nepal complains about “Big Brother” India. When it comes to Pakistan, Modi seems to have behaved exactly like the previous UPA regime: blowing hot and cold and seen to be changing goalposts. In September 2014, when Pakistani troops indulged in cross border firing ( almost routine for decades ), the Modi regime delivered a robust response. Those were days of euphoria. By 2016, it had allowed a Pakistani security team to visit the Pathankot Air Force base ( site of a terror attack in December 2015) and face the embarrassment of Pakistan yet again denying that the terrorists came from there. What next is anybody’s guess.

Containing China too now looks a difficult mountain to climb. Just a few weeks back, China scuppered Indian moves in the United Nations to tighten the screws on Azhar Masood. India tried to retaliate by allowing some Chinese dissidents to visit India and participate in an event. China frowned and India blinked. Of course, in the larger scheme of things, Modi’s sustained outreach to East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Philippines among others-all fearful of Chinese domination- is a success. But this is a truly long term foreign policy goal and and it would be foolish to pass judgements in a hurry.

What about India and the world? There can be no doubt that Modi’s high octane diplomacy and his frequent visits to foreign capitals have made a difference. The manner in which he consistently sells India as an attractive destination for investors is truly laudable. And the results show that he is succeeding. India became the largest recipient of FDI in 2015, dethroning China after decades. About other major powers taking India more seriously, much would depend on how the Indian economy performs over the next few years. Money talks and as the next article in this series will analyze, it is how the Indian economy performs that will largely determine the Modi legacy.