In a rapidly changing world, the Modi government’s foreign policy will require much more imagination than the shock-and-awe tactics of the past two and a half yearsA
In June this year, just after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington, a senior American official spoke of the “Modi Doctrine”, giving formal recognition to the foreign policy choices adopted by India since May 2014. In his speech at the U.S. Congress, Mr. Modi outlined India’s commitment to the partnership with the U.S. as being a “new symphony in play” in order to build an international maritime partnership in Asia, to play a leading role in the South Asian neighbourhood, strategically as well as for humanitarian purposes, and to take a strong position on terrorism or cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
A few months later, Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, speaking at the launch of a book, The Modi Doctrine: New Paradigms in India’s Foreign Policy, went on to define it thus: India first, Neighbourhood first, engaging competing global powers, with a focus on the diaspora and on delivery.
In his own account of the “Gujral doctrine”, former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral articulated a “SAARC minus Pakistan” neighbourhood approach when he said, “With neighbours like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity, but gives and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust.” And in 2013, when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh articulated his “five-point” foreign policy objectives, he too put domestic development at the top: “The single most important objective of Indian foreign policy has to be to create a global environment conducive to the well-being of our great country.”It could be argued that none of these goals are new. While the shift from non-alignment to a U.S. partnership began during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure, the special maritime partnerships with Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Singapore, as a response to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, go back nearly a decade (2007). The focus on Pravasi Bharatiyas goes back even further.
At the half-way mark in Mr. Modi’s term, after which governments traditionally turn from foreign policy to domestic elections, what then makes his foreign policy distinct? The answer to that may have come from Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s comments in the past few months where he has repeatedly referred to the need for “unpredictability” in India’s defence, nuclear and strategic postures. It is easy to see that Mr. Modi’s foreign policy thinking, which is “out of the box”, and taking all by surprise at every turn, has also incorporated this element, right since he invited South Asian leaders to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014.
Since then, whether it was the sudden moment on a swing with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Gujarat in 2014, the Republic Day invite to U.S. President Barack Obama, in 2015, or the surprise stops in Kabul and Lahore on his return from Moscow last Christmas, the Prime Minister’s foreign forays have had a shock-and-awe character. His closest partnership was forged with the U.S., the country that shut him out for nine years, while his biggest success came from Bangladesh, the country whose citizens he swore during his electoral campaign to shut out. He is yet to visit Israel, the country he spoke of most often as a friend, but he has completed several tours to West Asia — to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar — and has already visited Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy. None of this could have been gamed in advance by even the keenest watchers of Mr. Modi or of the government’s foreign policy.
Crossing red lines
With Pakistan that doctrine of unpredictability has been most pronounced. After more than a year of fits and starts, Mr. Modi decided to restart dialogue with Pakistan and pay a surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015, although the cancellation of India-Pakistan dialogue after the Pathankot attack was probably predictable. In 2016, he announced three strikes on Pakistan in quick succession. On Independence Day, he announced a new, activist policy towards Balochistan’s freedom movement, a major departure from India’s traditional policy of non-interference. Next came the announcement of cross-Line of Control strikes in retaliation for the Uri attacks, and a departure from India’s policy of keeping such operations covert. Finally came the announcement along with neighbouring countries of a boycott of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit in Pakistan. If he makes good on the threat of abrogating or renegotiating the Indus Waters Treaty, as he seemed to indicate at an election rally in Punjab this month, then that will most certainly be his fourth strike, each one crossing a new red line.
It must be noted that each of these moves has been accompanied by considerable domestic applause and sometimes international approbation. With its obvious “first-mover” advantages, this approach to staid, constrained and predictable foreign policy has given Mr. Modi some his most successful moments in the past two and a half years. The approach is also not without precedent, just as former U.S. President Richard Nixon — who called it the “Madman Theory”, according to his chief of staff Harry Haldeman’s memoirs — told Henry Kissinger to convey to Russia and the Communist bloc that he was capable of any “irrational” action (read nuclear) on Vietnam.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump too has often expressed his desire to be “Nixonian” on Syria, North Korea, etc, in not allowing other countries to guess his future strategy. His recent surprise call to Taiwan’s President indicates that he is going ahead with his version of the “Madman Theory”. However, for a number of reasons — and not just because Vietnam didn’t go as planned for Nixon — it is time to reassess the Modi government’s dependence on the doctrine’s value going forward.