For India, 2016 was a year when several trend-changing events took place, both domestically and internationally. The Modi-led government has had its hands full with terrorism on the security front, with attacks infusing a change in policy towards Pakistan, while a major success on the foreign policy front has been the concrete progress made in relations with the United States—much to China’s dismay. The country is in a state of flux and the governing regime has a host of politico-economic issues to battle with in the new year. These challenges may have some impact on the foreign policy front.
2016 witnessed numerous terror-related attacks that were linked to Pakistan, presenting major headwinds to Modi and India’s foreign policy. In December 2015, in a bold move, Prime Minister Modi made an impromptu trip to Pakistan to meet Nawaz Sharif. But the immediate aftermath of this attempt to break the ice was the Pathankot attack, which nullified whatever good press and goodwill the end-of-year visit had built up. India did allow Pakistan to investigate the incident, but that did not end up helping the state of bilateral relations. Pathankot was followed by higher levels of violence along the Line of Control, including regular exchange of fire, and casualties across the border, culminating in the September 18 Uri attack. This attack inflicted the highest number of military casualties in any Kashmir attack in over two decades.
This was also a harbinger of change in Modi’s approach towards Pakistan, as India adopted a more coercive stance to deter sub-conventional aggression from Pakistan by deploying a range of diplomatic and military instruments. India hit back with “surgical strikes,” and even disclosed it publicly. This action inflicted loss on Pakistan in military and reputational terms and probed its “red lines.” The Indian response was not limited to the military strike; India’s diplomatic machinery went into overdrive to isolate Pakistan at all international fora including at the Heart of Asia Conference, at the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Brazil Russia India China South-Africa (BRICS) alliance, and through the cancellation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. To put further pressure on Pakistan, with the aim of compelling it to cease sub-conventional violence, India threatened to independently pull out of the long-standing Indus Waters Treaty. Indeed, Prime Minister Modi invoked two issues very critical to Pakistan in two separate speeches in 2016: Balochistan and the Indus Waters Treaty. Going into 2017, India can be expected to continue to drive a hard bargain vis-à-vis Pakistan by signaling on these critical issues.
United States-China-India Triangle
Throughout the year, a consistent consolidation of United States-India ties, and on the same note a further deterioration of China-India ties, was evident. India and the United States signed a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), while the United States Congress passed the National Defence Authorisation Act 2017 (NDAA), which designated India as “major defense partner,” in effect binding all future U.S. governments to treat India as such. On the other hand, Chinese opposition to India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), its steadfast defense of Pakistan in the BRICS forum, and its “technical hold” on banning Masood Azhar (leader of the banned Jaish-e-Mohammed outfit) by the United Nations Security Council, has raised heckles in India. India’s keenness to appear as a balancing power between the United States and China has been hurt as a result of these events.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 8, 2016
Key Domestic Events
Towards the end of the year, Modi made a sudden grand announcement to demonetize higher denomination currency notes, to target black money in the system. The move was aimed at garnering appreciation and support of the masses and gaining mileage in the upcoming state assembly elections. However, the lack of liquidity and mammoth requirement for cash rendered all preparations by the banking system inadequate. The loss of face suffered by Modi and the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) on account of the inconvenience caused to the masses and short-term downsides to the economy unified the entire spectrum of opposition against the Prime Minister. This may impact the BJP’s electoral prospects negatively. Poor electoral results with an under-performing economy may lead the ruling regime to pursue politics based on religion more aggressively, in order to divert public attention from the real issues of governance and policymaking.
The year-end also saw the appointment of a new Chief of Army Staff (COAS), Lt Gen Bipin Rawat. This is significant because rarely has the seniority principle been overlooked for the top position, and Rawat is know for his counter-insurgency experience. India also successfully tested Agni-V, a three-stage solid fuel propelled missile with a range of 5000 km. This latest test has paved the way for its induction into service and solidified a more credible nuclear deterrent for India vis-à-vis China.
The overall vector of events in 2016 on the foreign policy, security, and economic fronts going into 2017 is difficult to assess or predict. However, if this vector reflects negatively on the government domestically, in terms of electoral performance, or in terms of constraining its ability to conduct regular business, foreign policy and regional security will be impacted. Pakistan will possibly bear the brunt of the ramifications on this front. Unlike China, policy vis-a-vis Pakistan is a far more emotive issue which is milked for political expediency by several domestic outfits. Nationalistic rhetoric generated domestically for gaining political mileage, therefore, has a higher probability of leading to actionable policy. On a similar note, tailwinds continue to blow for U.S.-India ties and 2017 should follow the trajectory of 2016. This will have direct bearing on India-China ties, which seem to be getting more conflict-oriented in nature.
Image 1: Prime Minister’s Office (India)
Image 2: @narendramodi, Twitter