For India to make the most of Narendra Modi's ambition and energy, he must get New Delhi to keep up
This is an unedited draft of my monthly The Asian Balance column that was published in Business Standard from 2010-2017. The column’s agenda was to persuade Indian policymakers to take an active interest in a region that has since come to be called the “Indo-Pacific.”
Few analysts expected Narendra Modi to pay serious attention to foreign policy in the weeks and months after taking office. There was (and remains) so much to do on the domestic front to redeem the promises he made in his campaign that many, including this columnist, felt that it would be some time before the new prime minister got round to external affairs. Yet Mr Modi surprised us right from the word go: he shook up the stodgy diplomacy of the subcontinent before capturing unprecedented attention in Japan, the United States and Australia, and elsewhere.
Only curmudgeons will deny that Mr Modi has gotten off to a brilliant start in foreign policy, re-establishing India as a significant player in international affairs. Even Singapore’s The Straits Times has acknowledged this, with its editors picking the Indian prime minister as the Asian of the Year 2014.
Mr Modi has raised expectations across the region. Such is India’s position in regional geopolitics that countries ranging from Japan to Australia, Vietnam to the United States expect New Delhi to take their side in their disputes with China. Beijing, for its part, is likely to calculate that it can no longer count on India to be tentative in its Indo-Pacific engagement. As a result, geopolitics has become a few notches more serious for India, and with that come several risks that the Modi government will have to manage.
First, India’s foreign service is understaffed, which means that there is a limit to which it can follow through on Mr Modi’s energetic initiatives. If diplomatic capacity does not catch up, the gap between the prime minister’s promise and the foreign service’s delivery can diminish India’s credibility in the international arena. Even if the entire Indian Foreign Service (IFS) adopts Mr Modi’s famously short sleeping hours, there is so much on their agenda that outcomes will suffer.
For India to take advantage of the openings and the opportunities Mr Modi has created, the government will have to urgently add both implementation and intellectual capacity to the ministry of external affairs. In the short term, the government could draw on talented officers from other civil services and the armed forces. Over the longer term, the IFS needs to be enlarged. Only the prime minister’s imprimatur can make these changes happen.
Second, domestic politics can constrain Mr Modi’s ability to deliver his part of international deals, much like they did his predecessor. The Rajya Sabha, where the National Democratic Alliance does not have the numbers, can throw a spanner in the works on any foreign policy endeavour that needs legislative sanction. Solving the impasse over the United States civil nuclear reactor sales ahead of Barack Obama’s visit to New Delhi in January is in the mutual interest of both countries. Mr Obama is also keen on a climate deal. If he wants to move on these, Mr Modi will not only have to contend with parliamentary opposition, but also the statements of the Bharatiya Janata Party while in opposition, and the views of some of his own supporters. This is true not only for deals with the United States, but with Bangladesh, China, Japan and others.
Third, by courting the Indian diaspora, Mr Modi cannot avoid stepping into their politics. This is a double-edged sword and can get messy, especially where there is an expectation that New Delhi will intervene on their behalf in local political or ethnic disputes. Going to any extent to protecting the interests of Indian citizens is fine and called for. However, the slightest intervention concerning foreign citizens of Indian origin is an altogether different category and comes with different types of risks.
Fourth, India lacks expeditionary military capacity. The Indian navy is a significant force in the Indian Ocean region, has increased its operations and a decent expansion plan. This gives New Delhi some power in the maritime space, from countering seaborne threats like piracy to delivering humanitarian relief in disaster-struck regions. However, for diplomacy to have a sharp end, New Delhi must have the ability to readily land and sustain brigade level formations in regional conflict zones.
Fifth, Mr Modi’s second most difficult foreign policy challenge will be to manage the tensions along the frontiers with Pakistan and China. It serves the Pakistani military establishment’s interests - almost at any given time - to raise the ante along the Line of Control and embroil India in a border conflict. There is also the risk that some of Pakistan’s terrorist proxies will carry out terrorist attacks on Indian soil. The government will face immense public and political pressure to respond forcefully. Whatever else such escalation might achieve, it will suck out most of the energy of the government’s foreign policy apparatus, affecting the larger agenda Mr Modi has set.
You can read more of these columns in the The Asian Balance archive.
Finally, the biggest foreign policy challenge for the Modi government is the task of restoring India’s economic growth. There is no paradox here: for the favourable reception Mr Modi received in the world’s capitals lies in their perception that India is part of the solution to their own problems. They look towards a growing India has extensive trade and investment with the world. After the novelty and the shine wears off a promising new government, it is the economic indicators that will matter. So growth is a foreign policy imperative.
It is good to have a prime minister who revels in foreign affairs. But for India to make the most of Mr Modi’s ambition and energy, he must get New Delhi to keep up.
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