Continuing the trend he set in his first year in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his second year at the helm, maintained his government’s now trademark focus on enervating India’s political engagement with the world. He travelled to more than 20 countries, hosted many foreign dignitaries, including more than 50 African leaders at the massive India-Africa Forum Summit and the heads of the Pacific Island nations at the Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation, and took the lead on key multilateral initiatives. However, even as the prime minister maintained his frenetic diplomatic pace, it also became clear that his administration is not able to keep up, primarily due to institutional inadequacies.
If the first year was about focusing on the Indian sub-continent and the larger Indian Ocean region, Modi’s second year in power saw major engagements with West Asia (United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia), Central Asia, Europe, Africa, and even the Pacific Islands, apart from the usual meetings with the big powers. Not all of them necessarily produced momentous tangibles, in terms of path-breaking deals or generational upgrades in the bilaterals, but each one was crucial for boosting India’s political interaction with that country or region.
The importance of this interaction, which is necessary to convert economic ties into strategic partnerships, cannot be overstated. In past decades, especially during the 10 years that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power, such rendezvous had been reduced to a bare minimum, mostly because Indian leaders were too busy firefighting at home. Modi, heading India’s first majority government in three decades, is trying to make up for these losses.
His efforts were most visible in West Asia where India already has extensive economic ties, a significant diplomatic presence, and, of course, a large diaspora. High-level political engagement with this region was the missing piece, and this is what Modi has brought to the table, Prof PR Kumaraswamy of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi told this writer. Once the quality of political engagement improves, New Delhi will better understand the complexities of the region, he further added. This may lead to India moving from a blanket friends-with-everybody policy towards a more nuanced and informed list of priorities.
Modi raised India’s profile in this realm, with the high point being the United Nations climate change summit in Paris last December. Modi re-positioned India so that it was no longer seen as an obstructionist force but a leading voice of the developing world – specifically through the solar alliance initiative. Notably, renewables make for just one side of India’s new energy coin – the other is nuclear energy. Both have been incorporated into the core of India’s foreign policy objectives under Modi.
Three themes were carried over from year one to year two. First was the diaspora focus, as part of which the Madison Square Garden template developed in New York was reapplied with aplomb in Dubai, Dublin, San Jose, London, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and Brussels, and then somewhat modified for Riyadh.
Second was projecting India as an ocean power—this theme emerged in year one through the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, signed during President Barack Obama’s January 2015 visit, and was reiterated during Modi’s Indian Ocean island tour in March 2015. In his second year, this motif was reemphasized by the International Fleet Review, which brought 50 foreign navies to India’s shore and was a tremendous show of strength.
The third theme is that of religious diplomacy. If year one had Modi making temple visits in Nepal and Japan, and launching International Yoga Day, year two saw him with folded hands at a Buddhist temple in China, hosting an international Sufi conference in New Delhi, and bringing a sizeable foreign diplomatic contingent to the Simhasth Maha Kumbh in Ujjain.
The government tried to bring back a fourth theme, “neighborhood first”, but suffered significant setbacks. With Nepal and the Maldives, New Delhi struggled to play the role of a protective big brother without getting drawn into the domestic politics of sovereign nations. With Pakistan, the talk-terror cycle continued despite the efforts of Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif to mend ties. In the aftermath of the Pathankot attack, it seemed like for every step forward, the India-Pakistan bilateral was doomed to take two steps backwards. With Sri Lanka, the JF17 issue was a bit of a dampener.
Last Mile Delivery
Lack of follow-through is the biggest problem with Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy that has come to light in his second year in office. Several deals have been announced amidst much fanfare but few are signed and sealed. For example, the military logistics deal with the United States was not signed during Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s visit, even though it has reportedly been finalized. Similarly, the French president came and went in January 2016 but the Rafale deal couldn’t be delivered, just as the agreement with Westinghouse to build six nuclear reactors is yet to come through despite the 2015 “breakthrough” on the nuclear liability clause. India’s efforts to gain access to the four key export control regimes have also made only limited progress.
There’s a sobering lesson here: successful diplomacy is a team effort, and Modi’s team needs more time and space to get things done. This is primarily because the severely under-staffed Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) simply does not have the bandwidth to power Modi’s agenda. Perhaps, this is where the prime minister should now focus his attention – on building up the MEA and the Indian foreign service corps’ institutional capabilities so that they can effectively represent the interests of a rising power.
Image: Eamonn M. McCormack, Getty