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Proactive PM charmed friends and foes alike

| SRIDHAR KUMARASWAMI
Published : May 25, 2016, 3:02 am IST
Updated : May 25, 2016, 3:02 am IST

Bolstering ties with America, a flip-flop with Pakistan, NDA’s foreign policy is a mixed bag.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Bolstering ties with America, a flip-flop with Pakistan, NDA’s foreign policy is a mixed bag.

Proactivism in foreign policy led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, along with external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, has been perhaps one of the biggest hallmarks of the Modi government’s performance in the past two years, with strengthening of ties with the United States and sharp ups and downs in ties with Pakistan being the most important features. The last few months of the previous UPA-2 government’s tenure had seen a sharp deterioration in ties with the superpower due to the arrest of Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in 2013. When Prime Minister Modi took over on May 26, 2014, there was uncertainty over ties given that Mr Modi had been denied a visa in 2005 to visit the US when he was chief minister of Gujarat. But brushing aside all that, the Prime Minister embarked on a whole new push to bolster ties with the US. Within four months of taking over, he visited the US where the ice was broken.

Within four months of that, US President Barack Obama visited India to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade on January 26, 2015, the first for any US President, which showed the warmth in ties. Both countries announced a breakthrough in the seven-year logjam for operationalisation of the Indo-US nuclear deal. This was followed by a visit by PM Modi to the US in September 2015 that included the West Coast and Silicon Valley. The PM’s third visit took place in March this year to Washington for a nuclear summit which will now be followed by an unprecedented fourth visit in June to address a joint session of the US Congress.

Apart from this, Mr Modi’s neighbourhood-first policy was also a cornerstone of his foreign policy approach in the past two years. For his swearing-in ceremony, Mr Modi invited leaders of the Saarc countries and it was the presence of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that caused the greatest excitement and triggered hope for improvement in ties with India’s troublesome western neighbour. But there was volatility in store, and despite several upswings, including Prime Minister Modi’s surprise Lahore visit in December 2015, a series of mis-steps by Pakistan has led to the comprehensive dialogue being put in hold.

Despite the roller-coaster ride in India-Pakistan ties, India took steps to improve ties with other neighbours that resulted in a mixed bag of results. Ties with Nepal began on a promising note, with Mr Modi’s two visits to that country in 2014. India also rushed relief aid to Nepal last year following the earthquake there. But ties began going downhill after Nepal adopted its new Constitution and triggered anger among Nepalese Madhesis in the Terai who felt they had been ignored by the hill Nepalese, resulting in the Madhesis enforcing an economic blockade. When the disruption ended and ties seemed to be improving came a bid by the Nepali Congress and the Maoists to topple Nepalese PM K.P. Oli. Speculation was rife that Kathmandu suspected New Delhi’s hand, leading to the cancellation of the Nepalese President’s proposed visit and sacking of the Nepalese ambassador.

But ties strengthened sharply with another eastern neighbour, Bangladesh, with whom India inked a landmark agreement to settle the border issue, with an exchange of enclaves between the two sides. This has bolstered ties with the Sheikh Hasina government in Dhaka which has traditionally been pro-India. On Sri Lanka, too, ties improved with the electoral defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 and the taking over of Maithripala Sirisena as the new President. India is hopeful that the new government in Colombo will hasten the reconciliation process with Sri Lankan Tamils and also take steps to find a humanitarian solution to the problem of fishermen fishing in each other’s waters.

India also reached out to its extended neighbourhood, including Afghanistan where India is implementing several development projects, as well as Iran where PM Modi inked a bilateral agreement for development of the crucial Chabahar port that will enable India to bypass Pakistan and trade with Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian nations using both the sea and land routes. Important visits to the Gulf by Mr Modi, including to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, also cemented ties with these oil-rich countries where a large number of Indians live and work.

On China, its President, Xi Jinping, made a historic visit to India in September, 2014, followed by PM Modi’s visit to China in the middle of 2015. But despite improvement in ties with Beijing, India has been concerned over the Sino-Pakistani nexus that has been manifested in two recent decisions of Beijing - to block New Delhi’s move to get Pakistan-based terrorist and JeM chief Masood Azhar banned by the UN and to block India’s entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group. But despite this ties between the two sides appear stable, with President Pranab Mukherjee embarking on a visit to China.