The problem

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WHEN Narendra Modi assumed office as prime minister, following the ‘spectacular’ victory of the BJP-led NDA coalition, almost no one anticipated the centrality that foreign policy initiatives would enjoy in the first year of the new government. Narendra Modi, after all, had never occupied any position at the Centre. The campaign too, barring the inflamed rhetoric vis-a-vis Pakistan, terrorism, Bangladeshi infiltrators and weakened defence preparedness, had focused more on domestic concerns. And while as chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi had both visited and sought to develop closer ties with Japan and China – mainly to attract investment – no one quite suspected his deep interest in reorienting and giving greater impetus to India’s relations with the outside world.

Starting with the unexpected invitation to heads of SAARC nations to his swearing-in ceremony; visits to Bhutan, Nepal, Japan, US, Australia and Brazil (for BRICS), and most recently to Mauritius, Seychelles and Sri Lanka , the prime minister has surprised everyone with the flair with which he has operated on the world stage. Both the purposefulness and energy he displays, as also his sense of the occasion, appear a pleasant departure from the ‘listlessness’ of recent years. And while observers have pointed to his penchant for ‘performance’, with one eye fixed on his domestic constituency, (remember Madison Square Garden) even his harshest critics rate his external engagements as the most notable part of his early days in office.

But do the high voltage engagements of the recent months mark a substantive departure in India’s foreign policy? Claims to departure or innovation are, however, heavily dependent upon what is conventionally accepted as the norm. For instance, if it is commonly alleged that Nehru’s foreign policy was marked by a woolly-headed idealism – an underplaying of the importance of military strength or an unrealistic exuberance about non-alignment and South-South solidarity – then it becomes easier to ‘package’ Indira Gandhi’s moves – Indo-Soviet Treaty, creation of Bangladesh – as reflecting a welcome turn to realism. This, however, is not the scholarly opinion. All Indian prime ministers, from Nehru to Modi, have remained unwavering in their pursuit of national interest. Nehru, for instance, never let his ‘abhorrence’ for nuclear weapons come in the way of developing India’s nuclear programme. The ‘tilt’ towards the Arab world and Palestine did not stop a deeper engagement with Israel under different regimes. The focus on Asia, so credited to Modi, was given its first meaningful push under Narasimha Rao, and Manmohan Singh needs credit for foregrounding the importance of economic concerns. Finally India, despite greater bonhomie with the US, has quietly refused to jettison its relationship with Iran. Such examples can be multiplied.

Are the ruptures more marked than the continuities? Nevertheless, while the period under review is hardly sufficient to permit any robust assessment, some early indications are difficult to miss. For instance, it is clear that much more than in the past, the Modi regime’s foreign policy will be dominated by economic and security interests. Rarely before has any government so assiduously pushed the interest of corporate India. Similarly, there is little attempt to sugar-coat the growing proximity to Israel, particularly on matters related to defence. Simultaneously, it is equally clear that in its pursuit of ‘national interest’, the BJP regime will continue with and deepen select policy initiatives of the previous regime, even if it had criticized them in the past. The handling of the unfinished business of the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, specifically the constraints in attracting private sector investment in the nuclear power sector, is reflective of the administration’s pragmatic orientation.

Prime Minister Modi’s understanding and steering of India’s external engagements is crucial because, unlike in the early years of our history as an independent republic, we are now operating in a far more open, complex and interconnected world. Choices that other countries exercise, both because of and independent of India’s decision, have a strong bearing on our options. Unfortunately, the increasingly complex and pressing challenges have to be handled by a vastly ill-equipped and stressed foreign policy establishment – suffering from lack of personnel, training and resources. Crafting an effective transition will thus not be easy without a concerted effort to fix the many shortcomings of the foreign service.

This issue of Seminar debates the many issues arising out of India’s external engagements – the relations with our neighbours, the rise of China, negotiating the complex interplay and rivalry between the US and Russia, our role in multilateral forums like WTO and GATT, issues related to climate change, IPR regimes or cyber security, among others. The hope is that it will contribute to a more meaningful discussion and debate on matters far too often left to experts.