There was the sincere intent to strengthen the Saarc.
During the first term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, foreign policy remained nebulous, more of bonhomie rather than clear stances. The Prime Minister did not touch upon specifics during his record number of foreign visits, which is as it should be. Ms Sushma Swaraj, who was the minister for external affairs, was not given the brief to speak out except in generalities. Mr Ajit Doval, the national security adviser, was not seen as the man to articulate the view of the government. He was pressed into the nitty-gritty of closed-door negotiations. A major change that has happened in the second Modi government is that not only has former foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar been laterally inducted into the Union Cabinet, but it seems that he has been given the charge to speak on policy as well. There is little doubt that Mr Jaishankar has clear views and he couches the views in clear, diplomatic — not in the usual sense of the term — language. Mr Modi trusts him completely. And for the first time in many years, we will get a clear sense of what Indian foreign policy is all about. It will no more be wrapped in platitudes and clichés.
Mr Jaishankar has fired the first salvo as it were. Speaking at a seminar after taking over as minister, he has said in unambiguous language that there had been problems with the working of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (Saarc), without making an explicit reference to Pakistan. And that there was more energy in the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Economic Cooperation (Bimstec) formation. There is evidence for the shift in stance. Mr Modi had invited the heads of state of and government of Saarc for his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. There was the sincere intent to strengthen the Saarc. And the Prime Minister himself made enough goodwill gestures like making an unofficial stopover at Lahore on his way home from Kabul to New Delhi to greet then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday and partake in the celebration of his daughter’s wedding. But relations between the two countries hit a roadblock soon after the intermittent terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir.
It was clear even without the provocative terrorist attacks, Pakistan has been creating hurdles for the effective functioning of Saarc. India was the big country in the group and Pakistan sought strategic parity which it did not have. Consequently, every Saarc summit was overshadowed by India-Pakistan shenanigans. The other members of Saarc were helpless in making the forum work. Unfortunately, the Indian media and pundits were more focused on the India-Pakistan bonhomie rather than on Saarc. Their presumption was that Saarc cannot function if India and Pakistan did not settle their bilateral disputes.
There was also the other development when Saarc was expanded to include Afghanistan as a new member, and China and the United States among others became observers in the organisation. Former Pakistan Army chief-turned-President Pervez Musharraf had argued at Singapore’s Shangrila Dialogue that Pakistan wanted China to be a part of Saarc to counter the towering presence of India. Pakistan was keen to subvert Saarc for two reasons. First, it could not see itself standing in the shadow of India in Saarc. Second, the Saarc idea was mooted by Bangladesh over 30 years ago and Pakistan was never very enthusiastic about it. And, to be fair, nor was India. In the new century, India saw itself as a global, rather than regional, player. This was partially due to the newfound power unleashed by the economic reforms of 1991. The world recognised India as an important stakeholder, and the Americans saw India as a counterweight to the growing dominance of China in Asia.
Unfortunately, India’s strategy wonks never found the courage break the diplomatic taboo to state the bare fact that India does not fit into Saarc. Mr Jaishankar has broken that taboo, and it is good that he has done it.
What India has done now is that the problem has been stated — how Pakistan remains a roadblock for India in the neighbourhood. But we are far from finding an answer to the problem. The question remains whether turning from Saarc to Bimstec is the right solution. Should India have strengthened the India-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) as part of its “Look East” policy instead of looking to Bimstec to connect India to Asean?
Critics of Indian foreign policy, and not just of Mr Modi, believe that India is the Big Brother in the region and that it has problems not just with Pakistan but with all other countries in the region as well. It is a fair criticism. India cannot become a meek player and pretend that it is not big when it is big. India’s generosity will not be appreciated either. The neighbours are justified in resenting India’s size and its economic power. The neighbours may even be right in moving somewhat closer to China to counter the Indian influence. It will be difficult for India to establish its exclusive sphere of influence. It is not just Pakistan, but Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives also look to China as the other power. Bhutan remains the only unqualified pro-India country, but it cannot be taken for granted for all time.
The problems and challenges will persist and there are no easy solutions. But what is needed is the clear-headed recognition of those problems and not remain woolly-headed in our view of the world. India’s career diplomats have always been perceptive, though they mostly do not have the privilege of saying things as they are. Mr Modi will find in Mr Jaishankar what American President Richard M. Nixon must have found in Henry A. Kissinger. The difference between Mr Modi and President Nixon is that Nixon was a realist and that Mr Modi entertains illusions of power. Kissinger was a complete realist, with a firm grasp of what was possible and what was not. He reflected Nixon’s realistic thinking. It seems that in choosing Mr Jaishankar, Mr Modi has moved away from his visions of grandeur in the global power stakes, and he is adopting a more sober view of the world than before.