Most Indians, especially the admirers of the Prime Minister, buy into the BJP narrative that India’s prestige in the world has gone up since 2014, thanks to Narendra Modi. Nothing can be further from the truth. No one leader, even charismatic popular leaders like former US Presidents’ John Kennedy or Barak Obama can make a difference to a nation’s image.
A country is much more than the personality of a leader or a group of leaders. As the old saying goes, nations have no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests. Countries have to work for their interests and create options for their strategic interest, beyond that personalities, have little relevance.
Besides bringing in some razzmatazz into foreign policy, Prime Minister Modi has by and large taken forward what he inherited from Dr Manmohan Singh. Granted with more dynamism. There has always been a continuity in foreign policy whichever government is in Delhi.
After all, the tectonic shift in India-US ties began during the Vajpayee era when the Strobe Talbott-Jaswant Singh talks began after India’s nuclear test of 1989. It was taken to its logical conclusion by the signing of the landmark India-US nuclear deal by the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh. Modi has made sure that the defence agreements are signed and ties with the US continue to be on the upswing, despite minor squabbles.
Now with a huge mandate under his belt, Prime Minister Narendra Modi can take a fresh look at foreign policy. It is important for India to have a vision doctrine and a well-defined and long term strategic goal which is carried forward year after year. It must not be a five year or ten-year strategic doctrine but should perhaps stretch to 20-25 year period.
For the here and now, first on the line is Pakistan. With the election rhetoric now at an end, will things change? After the Pulwama terror attack, and India’s retaliatory strike in Balakot, Pakistan was lambasted and became a major talking point for the elections.
But with the polls done and dusted and an unprecedented margin of victory for the BJP, the mood would be different. For one, the picture of external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, talking to her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meet in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan on Wednesday, is a pointer.
Qureshi spun this out as an informal dialogue. Dawn reported the foreign office as saying, “We made it clear to her that we want all matters resolved through dialogue, and that Prime Minister Imran Khan had said in his very first speech that if India takes one step forward, we would take two steps forward.’’ The MEA said there were no informal talks, just an exchange of pleasantries. Before the elections, even this would have been impossible.
Modi will certainly try his hand at peacemaking again. Remember in 2014, he went out of his way to break the deadlock. Relations with Pakistan did not improve not because of Modi not trying. But after the Uri and Pathankot attacks and Nawaz Sharif’s inability to deliver on his promise, things took a downward turn.
Hardliners in the Pakistan army made sure of that. Prime Minister Imran Khan had publicly said that it would be easier to make peace with India if Modi and the BJP is at the helm. He is bang on. During Musharraf’s time, a common saying was that India and Pakistan could make a deal only when a military dictator is running the show in Islamabad and a nationalist government is in power in India.
The conditions are right in India now. But there is a question mark about Pakistan. Though it is well known that Imran Khan has the backing of the army, when it is a question of peace talks with India, will the army back the civilian PM? That is not known. But with the US pushing to get out of Afghanistan, the US is expected to push Pakistan and its army for talks.
Pakistan’s friends including Saudi Arabia and UAE will also bat for talks with Incidentally in the last five years, Modi has done exceedingly well in elevating ties with the Gulf nations. UAE and Saudi Arabia are looking at India as an investment destination and both countries played a part in getting captured Indian fighter pilot Abhinandan Varthaman released by Pakistan. This helped to avoid further escalation of the situation.
While India’s ties with the US and Europe as well as Russia are on course, China remains a challenge. The informal summit at Wuhan went a long way in reworking ties between Asia’s two major powers. China’s recent decision not to stand in the way of Masood Azhar being designated a global terrorist by the UNSC, are positive signs. Modi is expected to have another informal summit with President Xi Jinping sometime this year. India and China need to work out the boundary issue and work together to ensure that another Doklam does not occur.
One of the first countries to congratulate Modi on his elections was China. This is apart from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s congratulatory tweet to friend Modi. In a letter to PM Modi, President Xi Jinping spoke of “working together… to enhance mutual political trust, expand pragmatic cooperation and promote development partnership to a new height.” If these pious wishes can be carried forward it will be a boost not just for India and China but for the entire region.
Seema Guha is a senior journalist with expertise in foreign policy and international affairs.