By Vijay Darda | 16-03-2015
You can draw your own preferred conclusion. The top three: Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Indian Ocean countries), finance minister Arun Jaitley (United Kingdom) and home minister Rajnath Singh (Japan) all decided to go abroad at the same time. No one can accuse these responsible men holding such crucial posts, that they neglect their domestic duties. The point of criticism can be that they should have avoided being away from the country at the same time. But then this can be either seen as a sign of their confidence that nothing would be going wrong in the country during the period they are all away, or they are very poor at coordinating their travel plans. However, there is one unmistakable conclusion. Foreign policy is a high priority for this NDA government.
Modi Sarkar actually began its tenure with an emphatic foreign policy statement. The invite to the heads of SAARC countries for the swearing-in ceremony was billed as the bold opening move of then prime minister-designate Narendra Modi to embark on a personalised style of diplomacy. He has got to work even before formally taking office, and look at his personal magic — this was the message that was sought to be conveyed by his spin masters, and with good effect. Something that took off from the lawns of Rashtrapati Bhavan was then sought to be reinforced from international capitals beginning from Kathmandu and then stretching to all places — Washington, Sydney, Tokyo and even included New Delhi when global leaders came calling. There was an element of investing a “rockstar’ like persona in the Prime Minister and even his wardrobe made waves with the by now famous pin-stripe suit emblazoned with his name. The optics, and the atmospherics were all there. You could not find fault with it. Indeed, you had to watch it all unfold with awe and admiration.
Surely true to Prime Minister Modi’s word, no Prime Minister had done all this before. Consider just one thing — no Pakistani Prime Minister had been at swearing-in ceremony for his Indian counterpart. Separated (partitioned) at birth at the time of their emergence as independent sovereign countries from the yoke of imperialist colonial rule, the two countries have been at each other’s throat for the last almost seven decades, and Modi’s gesture had persuaded Sharif to respond positively. The stage was set for a journey of hope. The personal chemistry that was supposed to be the brand builder was also in evidence.
Now, someone would say that we should wait for the initial efforts to bear fruits. After all international diplomacy is a game of patience, and nothing happens in a jiffy. However, ten months is not too short a time either, and moreover when a government projects an image that it is rewriting the rules of engagement, every nuance gets a deeper meaning. Besides, there is an air of expectation, and one hopes that the signs of change would not be just visible, but also stabilise. However, the developments in this 10-month period cannot be described as encouraging from any standpoint. In fact the first jarring note came when cross border firing from Pakistan started, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif left India. Now, the frost in the Indo-Pak ties would indicate as if there was never any Modi-Nawaz bonhomie and the two did not exchange personal gifts with emotional warmth.
The Modi-Nawaz story seems to have become the pattern in a sense that a favourable personal chemistry has not lived up to its expectations and the immediate impact that was to be seen in the qualitative improvement of the relations has been missing. So, the Prime Minister established a first name relationship with the US President Barack Obama, but then even before leaving Indian shores we had the discordant notes. President Obama was advising us on the need for religious harmony. Thus, after the bear hugs, the smiles and the photo-ops, the Pakistanis, the Americans had their own messages. In between the Chinese also did not fail to live up to their reputation. During President Xi Zinping’s visit, the Chinese army “strolled” into Indian territory and tension remained at its height on the borders. These signs cannot be dismissed lightly as during foreign minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit and ahead of Modi’s proposed Sri Lankan journey, the island nation fired some warning statements threatening Indian fishermen enter their waters.
Just as a customer’s standing in the market depends on his spending ability, similarly in the world of strategic competition for influence and power it is the ability of a nation in terms of its economic strength and military might that counts. Indeed, economic power and military might are the two sides of the same coin, which loses its effectiveness in the absence of either. India has been traditionally slow in leveraging these components in contrast with China, with which there is a natural rivalry and a hostile past. So, while we may be making steady or even halting economic progress, we cannot escape facing the reality that in the only ocean named after a country — the India Ocean — we are in the process of facing these challenges to our maritime dominance.
The fact that we have been always on the defensive on the question of military might, and have never followed an aggressive approach (not always in terms of waging war but building our capability), specially as defence acquisitions have an element of the bad odour of corruption attached to them does not allow us to woo the smaller island nations in the Indian Ocean to our advantage. These nations need both — economic support and military protection. The Chinese have worked out their long strategy, and we have to fight to protect our natural advantage. This makes the foreign policy a complex amalgam of economic, military and diplomatic approaches towards all our neighbours — Pakistan above all. We have to ensure that our neighbours are dependent on our economic support, unafraid of our military might and simply charmed by our diplomatic offensive. We cannot win our foreign friends, simply by words alone as this is a competitive world.
Before I conclude…
These are early days for the AAP government in Delhi. It still has a lot of time to prove its worth. But then the manner in which the party’s internal power struggle has come to the fore does not really augur well for a political outfit that is to project itself as the third viable alternative to mainstream political parties. After its sweeping success in Delhi — winning 67 out of the 70 seats, it had started dreaming big and was eyeing a few state elections that are coming up in the near future. For instance, Punjab where it won 4 out of the 13 Lok Sabha seats last year. But then it has to offer itself as a viable political party, not just a protest movement eyeing power based on people’s discontent with the incumbent government.