Narendra Modi's foreign policy – Hitting the right notes

Ajith Vijay Kumar

While it may be a while before he delivers a perfect 'Ache Din' tune for the aam aadmi, Narendra Modi has – almost — hit all the right tones with India's foreign policy. Be it reinvigorating ties with neighbours or reaching out to the world at large, he has managed a fair bit of success considering the very little time he has been in power.

The most significant change in his approach to how India deals with the world has been the resetting of priorities by actively engaging players in our neighbourhood. The importance of the outreach that started with the formal invitation sent by Modi to heads of state of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations and Maldives lies in the disturbing reality that India lies at the center of a volatile region, where 'friends' are in short supply.

And, over the years, our relationship with neighbours has been at best an attempt to maintain status quo.

The fresh start provided by the Modi dispensation would go a long way in securing India's interests in its geo-political sphere of influence.

While Pakistan remains a problem given its resoluteness to never let relations normalise unless India toes its line on Kashmir and Siachen, the gains made by New Delhi with countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh hold the potential to provide India the much needed cushion of comfort while it aims to move to the bigger world stage with confidence.

Pakistan is an irritant and will remain one but that shouldn't stop the Prime Minister from approaching the problem with dexterity it demands.

The cancellation of foreign minister level talks over Pakistan's engagement with separatists may have been a good move in Modi's endeavour to display that he can walk the talk and take tough decisions when required. And by backing the armed forces to hit back with the same coin whenever Pakistanis commit ceasefire violations has reasserted India's tough line - “talks after the guns fall silent”. However, what may be the clincher is the dawn of understanding in Pakistan that lines on the border cannot be redrawn.

That objective may be wishful thinking given the over dependence of Pakistani establishment on Kashmir issue to keep domestic embers from exploding.

On the eastern front, Modi has had some early success. The warmth in display during his visit to Nepal and Bhutan come as a reassuring sign to show that the strategically vital Himalayan countries may not embrace the dragon at the expense of the elephant.

The two countries will play an important role in guiding India's China policy.

Notwithstanding the border stand-offs, attempts to encircle India and the trade imbalance, Modi is the custodian of an historic opportunity to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the world's growing superpower.

And, Beijing has been making the right noises.

"Modi has been an old friend of China for many years. There has been an anti-China atmosphere among India's public opinion since 1962. However, such a sentiment has been mitigated since Modi assumed office," said an article titled 'China, India should make endeavours toward their shared destiny' in the state-run Global Times. Modi had visited China four times as CM to seek investments in Gujarat.

With President Xi Jinping set to unveil a plan to develop a Silk Road economic belt and the 21st century maritime Silk Road during his forthcoming visit to New Delhi, the ties between the two countries can move on the next level.

Deepening business relationships between the two countries may turn out to be the elixir that can cure the disease of mistrust that started during British India, and also help India in following the middle path when it came to the Tibet issue.

Modi did send out a message when he invited Tibetan prime minister-in-exile Lobsang Sangay to his swearing ceremony - his government would not jitter in taking a stand based on its conviction.

Reports then claimed that China had lodged a formal complaint over the invite but India always has the option to point out the stapled visas issued by Beijing to Indian nationals from Arunachal Pradesh.

On the larger Asia-Pacific sphere, Modi has a tough balancing act to do given his close ties with Japan — China's long standing adversary. Modi shares a great rapport with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe and may help him in getting Japan to reduce its concerns on issues like nuclear cooperation.

While Japan looks at India as a counterbalance to check China's assertiveness in the region, India will have to tread the path cautiously.

Friendship is is even better, as was evident by the formation of BRICS Bank when the block of developing countries took a strong first step towards unshackling the vice like grip of the west on world’s financial system.

Also, the warmth exhibited by Brazilian President Dilma Roussef and South Africa's Jacob Zuma's in thier intrection with Modi gives India hope to strengthen the relationships further.

Talking of friendship, another big task for Modi would be to set things in order in India's relationship with its 'all-weather friend' Russia. Post the UN vote on Ukraine and Syria and the edgy nature of recent rounds of defence deal talks, Modi has to rebuild the relationship even as India continues to increase defence cooperation with other countries.

The most anticipated event on Modi's calendar is his upcoming visit to America.

The US has had a not-so-comfortable relationship with him. From denial of visa to rolling out the red carpet, the U-turn by Washington is self explanatory of Washington's failure to respond in time to Modi's rise.

Uncle Sam may be the torch-bearer of capitalism but it can't match the foresight of the British and other European countries.

UK was among the first countries to build bridges with Modi and they hope to capitalise on the early mover advantage. While EU remains among India's biggest trade partners, the relationship is of greater importance for India given the weight London and Brussels carry at the world stage.

The WTO deadlock is a cause of worry but India was right in sticking to its stand that it can't do away with the subsidies for Indian farmer – a section that is also desperately waiting for the 'Acche Din'.

Modi will be in Washington in September and he has his task cut out — reconfigure India's understanding of what drives America. The fact is America is largely guided by its own interests and that of its big businesses across countries and continents.

Washington's oft-repeated assertion that it considers India its strategic partner is welcome but New Delhi has to get more out of Capitol Hill. The nuclear bill was an important step forward but with the liability clause delaying its actual implementation, whether Modi is able to break the deadlock remains to be seen.

The challenge being to build a mutually beneficial relationship where both countries are equal partners.

The US wants India to be its anchor in Asia, given the reality that the next round of economic development would happen in the region. India also has a Look East policy of its own – East has increasingly become the new West as they say – and New Delhi can leverage its geo-strategic advantage for its own benefit rather than playing second fiddle to America.

But it remains to be seen whether India can put money on the table to emerge as a pole in the emerging equations in the region.

Narendra Modi's rise has come at a critical juncture in our history. We are 'there' but not 'THERE'. A growing India needs to focus on its economy that holds the potential to lift millions out of poverty.

Strong relationships with world powers and peaceful borders can greatly aid in the process. It may be debatable whether Narendra Modi is destiny's child but one thing is certain - History awaits him.

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