As soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived on the scene, many in India associated with professional diplomacy, and taking a cue from them the broad foreign policy-security establishment circuit (including the think tank crowd and journalists, especially television pundits), began to anticipate a new dawn in this country’s relations with the world.
What this upbeat assessment was based on was not clear, but everyone seemed awestruck by the PM’s apparent energy as the new man in charge rushed from country to country, hugging world leaders and making anodyne speeches at Indian diaspora jamborees — of which the show at the Madison Square Garden in New York was typical — got together by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Aided by a swooning and chauvinistic Indian visual media, a foreign affairs rock star had been born.
But this was no Metternich, Churchill, Kissinger, Nehru, Zhou Enlai, Lee Kuan Yew or Nelson Mandela — stalwarts who had a conception of world affairs and a strategic vision, in addition to the material, moral or intellectual means to deploy to realise their vision, as well as the hallmarks of a teacher in their own time and afterward.
Four years since Mr Modi’s advent, as the country slips into election mode and groans and grunts of disapproval are becoming audible around the country, it is not out of place to ask where the foreign policy manoeuvres of the “strong” leader, with a majority of his own in Parliament, have led us, and what laurels these have brought. Professional diplomats who once sang the leader’s praise are today gobsmacked as questions fly in all directions.
The stalwarts of the past did not speak words of self-praise, but Mr Modi did nothing but that as he flew around the world in designer jackets, uttering truths grown in his own kitchen garden.
His most profound sentences began and ended with the claim of him being the first Indian leader to land in such and such place in 10 or 20 or three years. In Canada, the self-advertisement was shown to be short on the truth. At any rate, it is not clear what has been gained from those visits. Nor did the PM bother checking if there was a reason why his predecessors had not been to a particular place.
In Kathmandu, the Indian PM strutted around the famous Pashupatinath temple dressed as the Hindu pope. In Lahore, he was the sari salesman bearing gifts for Nawaz Sharif’s mother. In Ahmedabad, he was the boatman on the waterfront for Xi Jinping even as Chinese soldiers were busy trespassing into perceived Indian territory in disputed border areas. Modi the innocent thought “charm” of this variety constituted the very essence of the diplomatic game. When it came to America, the PM was “aye, aye, sir!” whether it was Obama or Trump.
The pitiful results of these exertions lie scattered all around us. India’s neighbourhood is practically in revolt against New Delhi. Forget “Muslim Pakistan”, “Hindu Nepal” is telling Mr Modi to get lost. China has hinted that India cannot afford another Doklam crisis as that might entail having to deal simultaneously with Beijing and Islamabad.
New Delhi’s historical friend Moscow, which was the bulwark against anti-India Western manoeuvres on Kashmir in the UN Security Council, now openly flaunts its relations with China as well as Pakistan. It is this which has sent New Delhi diving to buy a consignment of S-400 missiles from Russia, in the process getting the Americans uptight.
No matter which way one cuts it, India’s foreign policy under Mr Modi leads to questions and no answers. In the months that remain, the peacock may dance but there will be no rain. For the first time since 1947, India’s foreign policy efforts lack a national consensus; indeed, a conscious effort has been mounted from the heart of the policy establishment — the PMO — to chest-thump solely in order to denigrate parliamentary opponents.
A video of the so-called “surgical strike” against Pakistan — which has proved to be of no deterrence value in fighting terrorism or against Pakistani incursions or ceasefire violations in Kashmir — was yet again wheeled out recently as a gift to certain television stations to drum up pro-government propaganda in the run-up to the national election and the clutch of state polls that precede it.
This act will ensure that the present regime will remain incapacitated from pursuing a meaningful Pakistan policy that has the nation’s backing. And, if there is no consensus on our Pakistan and China policies, which are among our most pressing international concerns, can we even say a foreign policy exists?
On an ultra-sensitive question like Kashmir, which draws international attention like flies are drawn to a pot of honey, the Modi government has ensured that its policy efforts elicit the deepest national cynicism, and produce despair. There is just no national unity as the regime goes about on a campaign of political abuse and vilification of regional Kashmir parties as well as national opponents.
On Kashmir, it was lack of policy direction and alertness on the part of the foreign policy establishment — whether residing in the external affairs ministry or the PMO — that the report of the UN Human Rights Council hit us smack in the eye and no one saw it coming. This has handed Pakistan and the Kashmiri extremists’ propaganda for a generation against which the government can do little. Who is answerable — the PM or his external affairs minister?
Before Narendra Modi became PM, he had no international exposure as such. Of course, he had the worldview of the RSS whose brightest postulate — deriving from the exclamations of its leader Mohan Bhagwat — is the curious demand that the world must acknowledge India as the “vishwa guru” or teacher to the world. Do we laugh at this, or cry?
As the election approaches, it will be interesting to see what new facts are manufactured to make the Modi foreign policy look grand, and mighty and powerful, and how the perception is managed to secure narrow, personal ends of the leader without doing a thing for the country.
If it was ever true that India’s foreign policy sank to the lowest depths of ordinariness, it is today. We have been witness to an era of banality and self-inflicted wounds.