Idea of India: There is More to Foreign Policy Than Frequent Flyer Miles
NEW DELHI: In foreign policy, as indeed in any other policy you have to have a clear, overarching goal, a strategy to arrive at that goal and then a flexible approach on tactics to be able to deal with contingencies as they arise.
Looking back over two years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy, one cannot perceive an overarching goal. I do not know what his strategy is except that which might be invented from moment to moment.
On the tactical front, he seems to go out to trip himself up but hardly to promote his own cause and if there is a consistent thread running through his foreign policy actions, it is inconsistency.
I’m glad I’m not a foreign diplomat posted in Delhi because I’m not quite sure what kind of report I would have been able to send on India’s foreign policy to my own headquarters.
We began by saying only the neighborhood is what most matters and to prove that, like an emperor, and I won’t take emperor Akbar’s name in fear of shaming Modi, he summons his satraps in all the seven other members of SAARC and says come and watch me being crowned and they come because they hope that this does mean a new era in this huge country’s relationships.
What is the score card today? When PM Modi went to Nepal, he announced with great pride that he was the first Prime Minister in 25 years to visit that country and the fact that he had gone to Nepal was regarded as an achievement in foreign policy. But the question as to why did his predecessors not go was not answered.
They didn’t go because it was a country in deep transition. It didn’t have a Constitution because all the components of the Nepalese domestic policy were clashing one with the other and all of them were casting either an eye towards India or turning their entire neck to look towards India. For India to get involved in their constitutional process in any way would be to diminish their sovereignty. When in fact what we should be emblazoning on our banners is that, even as we expect larger countries to respect our sovereignty, we will respect the sovereignty of countries that are smaller than us. That is why the Prime Ministers didn’t go.
Instead PM Modi, on arrival, found all these beaming Nepalese children waving flags for him. Now there are no more beautiful children in the world than Nepalese children and they make for excellent television and he came back saying that he had a triumphant visit.
When he went back in November, he insisted on going to Janakpur in order to establish his Hindu credentials as well as Nepal’s Hindu credentials. He was going to hold a rally, as if he was in India and distribute bicycles so that the votes of Indian relatives in Nepal are garnered to his side. They all, or many of them, happened to be Biharis and Bihar election was just a year away. So this is total misuse of foreign policy to promote domestic partisan concerns.
Nepalese were not too far behind in spotting the game and they said no to it. They’ll be made to pay a very high price for saying no to a Prime Minister whose chest, I understand, is about 14 inches larger than that of Marilyn Monroe.
The PM then decides that they are thwarting him because his chosen Prime Minister is being replaced by somebody else and he sends in Jaishankar, who is one of us diplomats but with a special message, to go to them after they’ve passed their Constitution and to tell them not to bring it into operation.
One of the commentators said that the body language of the Foreign Secretary was that of Lord Curzon. In other words they’ve spotted that there is a completely imperial dimension to our foreign policy relationship with a vital country next to us.
You look at any Nepali commentary on our behavior over the last few months, ranging from those who are traditionally anti India to people like Kanak Mani Dixit who are among the best friends that India could possibly have in Nepal,. They all want to know, who are we to tell the Nepalese what kind of a Constitution they should have? Especially when that Constitution is passed with a 111 members of the constituent assembly elected from the Tarai region, voting in favor of the Constitution and a minority of some 20-30 saying no to it.
As in Pakistan, the failure of that country arose out of its inability to have a Constitution, nine years after independence. Here is Nepal, approaching that ninth year and in a sudden U-turn succeeds in making a consensus. It is not a unanimity but a consensus and they say of their own accord that the new Assembly will continue to have constituent powers and therefore certain outstanding problems relating to the drawing of the boundaries of provinces and representation for minority ethnic elements will be addressed.
In other words they’ve accepted that there is a problem and said that their constitution mechanism allows for those changes. Whereas India, which has made a 120 changes in its constitution says we don’t believe you and imposes or collaborates in a blockade which is run exclusively by Madhesi politicians who have been defeated in the last election. There’s not one single prominent elected Madhesi representative among those who are running the blockade. This is not the way in which you behave with a friendly neighboring country.
Then the example of Bangladesh. We did it and PM Modi capitalized on it, but it is excellent that he got Mamata (Banerjee) around. He then lands up in Assam and announces that there is a right to return for Hindus around the world exactly as Benjamin Netanyahu states that there is a right to return for Jews. And exactly like Netanyahu says, that you can’t have a right to return for Muslims, he also says so announcing that any Hindu refugee or immigrant from Bangladesh has an automatic right to come to India. And only the Muslims will be targeted to find out if they are illegal or not and in that process, he has ensured that there will be a polarization on communal basis in a very sensitive state, Assam.
Assam is sharing a similar problem with two states, Bengal and Tripura, which have exactly the same problem of immigration from communities from Bengal but do not use this as a divisive element in domestic politics.
So those who are cheering the BJP win in Assam, let’s wait to see whether the cheers are before us.
With Sri Lanka, there has to be a constructive engagement that deals with the domestic Indian fallout of the problems in Sri Lanka. There is a Prime Minister there who’s announced that he will not hesitate in using his navy against intruding Indian fishermen. There has to be some kind of immediate settlement of this. In Tamil Nadu the Sri Lankan issue is alive and in Delhi, no one knows about it, which takes us to Pakistan.
Now In Pakistan, with no preparation whatsoever, PM Modi tells Nawaz Sharif, let’s get together. The one elephant in the room is the Hurriyat that has been talking to the Pakistani leaders since the Vajpayee, not the Congress government, for 15 yearsIt’s done the Pakistanis absolutely no good and it’s done us absolutely no harm.
He suddenly makes an issue of this and it takes him ten days from August 8,2014,when it is first known that the Pakistan High Commissioner has invited the Hurriyat, to August 18, 2014 to tell them that if you talk to the Hurriyat, we won’t talk to you and the entire dialogue process comes to an end.
Not recognising this, the Prime Minister wants to show himself as somebody who knows how to handle the Pakistani’s and he converts Ufa into a demonstration of how the Pakistanis have been forced to accept the Indian priority of terrorism, and downgrade their own priority of Kashmir. And he boasts about this when he comes back thereby sabotaging his achievement in Ufa which is to get the Pakistani Advisor, effective Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz to come across to Delhi and talk to Ajay Doval.
The PM then lands up in Lahore. Not a bad idea to say Happy Birthday to your favorite Prime Minister and to bless his granddaughter who’s about to get married, but you don’t realize that the minute you do that, there’s going to be a terrorist attack on India. When it does take place, he’s astonished. He says what infidels these Pakistanis are. This is childishness.
All responsibility of foreign affairs, particularly with regard to sensitive areas like Nepal is taken away from the foreign office and handed to the Indian Police Service, because that is Doval’s (NSA) background. Ajit Doval was in Pakistan as a spy and all of us know that. He spent a long time being a spy over there, but do you really feel that he is the best to handle Pakistan?
He’s a very able man and I am a friend of his. I have nothing against him personally but institutionally are not the foreign officers going to talk to each other, with the wealth of the background that they have. You use your assets. The worst thing that can happen in diplomacy is for a head of government to decide that he wants a personalized foreign policy where whatever is gained, is by one person and that is why there’s no preparation.
There was no preparation on May 2014 in New Delhi, before the Ufa meeting or before the Lahore gesture. So we are left picking up the pieces.
We are now in a position where we’ve allowed the Pakistanis to come in and check out at Pathankot, but were we sure that we wanted to go to Pakistan? In that case why didn’t we negotiate this? I understand that there are some back channel contacts taking place but the Manmohan Singh- Musharraf thing succeeded because while the details were being negotiated on the back channels, the overall picture remained in the control of the two heads of government and that his how they were able to almost successfully bring matters to, not closure, but considerable advance but by that time Musharraf got into trouble.
One more point I need to make. Burma or Myanmar is not a part of SAARC but it is a neighbor of ours.PM Modi has made, this is what the Americans do, a successful visit to Myanmar and he follows it up by invading that country. He has his Minister, some army guy who’s come into the Information Ministry to say, we’ve done it to the Myanmaris now we’ll do it to the Pakistanis.
Is this foreign policy?
Then I come to China. In the case of China, Jawaharlal Nehru decided back in 1947-49 that the excellent relationship he enjoyed with Chiang Kai-shek had to be transferred in larger national interest to the successor regime which appeared to be a regime that would get installed and stay.
There was one point of view which is generally attributed to Sardar Patel but I think it’s more attributable to Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai that the Chinese are a sworn enemy and we shouldn’t be misled into friendship with them.
There was the Nehruvian view that until 200 years earlier, Asia had been in the vanguard of the advancement of human civilization and we’d lost that privilege over two centuries, therefore needed to make the 21stC the Asian century by converting the Asian renaissance of the freedom movement into the Asian resurgence of the post-colonial era.
If there were differences with China, those were amenable to discussions and negotiations and we should not be confronting them and thus essentially came to action the moral philosophy of non-alignment. So we were a nonaligned power without realizing we were nonaligned for at least five or six years, and it was in the context of the rise of the Communist Party in China as an ally of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that the cold war came to Asia.
We are now in a ver dangerous phase. Through the first cold war we held our own by being nonaligned. There is a second cold war which is opening up between the United States and China and that does not exist in Europe, far away from. It’s at our doorstep.
Do we want that second cold war fought over our inert body or are we going to be nonaligned? Now for this we need to reconcile Mr. Modi being received in Xi’an with our joining effectively military pacts that are designed to ring fence China, keep it a continental power and prevent it from becoming a maritime power. All on the assumption that it is an aggressive country whose malintentions towards some islands in the Pacific Sea are aimed at converting it into a Chinese base.
Are we wanting as a strategic goal to be friends with China or assume that they are our enemy and the purpose of foreign policy is to guard against this enemy? Are we going to fall into twentieth century doctrines of aggressive nationalism which have led to the disaster of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century or are we going to be enlightened in a Gandhian-Nehruvian way in the Twentieth century?
These are the aching questions of foreign policy which there is a completely confused response.
You get President Xi to come to Sabarmati Ashram where he looks a bit bewildered when he is un-shoed and asked to sit cross legged and then they say look at him he’s received the Prime Minister of India in Xi’an. How can an Indian possibly go to China and not go to Xi’an since it’s the center of the Indo-China relationship and in any case President Xi is the MP for Xi’an. So there is nothing but symbolism in all this.
Is the main purpose of foreign visits is to call in BJP elements of the Indian community and start abusing the Gandhi family and India? Is the carrying of domestic disputes in a foreign area the reason for which we have a foreign policy? What kind of an image of India does it project to the Chinese when in Shanghai, there is a meeting held with the Indian community and in full glare the Chinese are told what a divided people we are.
Therefore I’d like to just sum up by saying, I think in these last two years of personalized foreign policy, the marginalization of the foreign service, the introduction of a police and intelligence perspective without any other input into foreign policy, inconsistency in the actions that we take, all these have damaged our goals very greatly. Mr Modi may have earned more frequent flier miles than any previous Prime Minister but I do think that there is more to foreign policy than tourism.
(This is the text of a presentation made by MANI SHANKAR AIYAR at the “Idea of India” conclave on “Two Years Of PM Modi: State Of The Nation.”)