The basic contours of Indian foreign policy have not radically changed in the five years since Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister, but the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s diplomatic and strategic failures have been more pronounced in comparison to the decade-long United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s rule. Modi started his tenure with great fanfare, inviting all the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries for his swearing-in ceremony, signalling a “neighbourhood first” foreign policy. Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan, was quick to accept the invitation along with other South Asian leaders. But it did not take long for the relationship with the neighbours to go downhill and for the unravelling of Modi’s South Asia policy.
When the NDA came to power for a second time in 2014, bilateral relations with most of our immediate neighbours were in good shape. Five years later, the picture looks different. Relations with Pakistan started deteriorating a few months after Modi took over. The sudden cancellation of the Foreign Secretary-level talks in August 2014 by the Indian government derailed the dialogue process that had been put in place by the UPA government. The Modi government started laying down new markers for Pakistan. The government decreed that Pakistani diplomats could no longer liaise with representatives of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference before the beginning of bilateral talks. Concurrently, the NDA government further reinforced its counter-insurgency measures in the Kashmir Valley following widespread protests and a perceptible rise in militancy.
The civilian death toll had risen in the Valley, fuelling terrorism. Suicide attacks on Indian military posts and convoys finally led to the flare-up in February when the Air Forces of the two countries faced off against each other, albeit very briefly, for the first time since the 1971 war. In December 2015, Modi indulged in his trademark diplomatic showmanship by suddenly making an unscheduled trip to meet Nawaz Sharif. Promises to restart talks were made by the Indian government, but they did not materialise for various reasons, the most important being the Modi government’s diplomatic inflexibility.
Relations went downhill even faster after the Indian Army brigade headquarters in Uri, Kashmir, was attacked by militants in 2016. Seventeen Indian soldiers were killed, and the Indian Army retaliated by staging a “surgical strike” across the Line of Control. Now, the international community’s focus is back on the Indian subcontinent after Pulwama and Balakot. Many commentators have been saying that the Indian subcontinent, not the Korean peninsula, is currently the most dangerous place in the world, where two nuclear-armed countries keep on issuing bellicose threats against each other. Both India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear forces are on “hair-trigger” alerts. There are credible reports that both the countries were on the verge of firing missiles at each other during the recent flare-up. The Donald Trump administration is now claiming credit for averting a dangerous escalation. Tensions with Pakistan feed into the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) nationalist narrative, especially during election time.
SAARC takes a hit
One casualty of the India-Pakistan diplomatic impasse is SAARC. Previous Indian governments had invested a lot to make it a meaningful alliance and to bring about regional economic integration through it. The current Indian government seems to have given up on SAARC. The SAARC summit, where South Asian leaders have important discussions on the sidelines, is supposed to be an annual affair, but it has not taken place after 2014. It was Pakistan’s turn to host the summit in 2015. But it has been cancelled for an unprecedented four times in a row because of the Indian Prime Minister’s refusal to go to Islamabad. The neighbours blame “Big Brother” India for the glaring lack of regional unity in the subcontinent.
Under Modi’s watch, the Indian government has managed to alienate Nepal, the only other predominantly Hindu nation in the region. During his first visit to Nepal as Prime Minister, Modi was given a hero’s welcome.
But the BJP government’s attempts to strong-arm the country’s political parties to accommodate its viewpoints while formulating the new Constitution went down badly with the Nepali public. One of the unstated demands was that Nepal should be declared “a Hindu Rashtra”. And, to add injury to insult, the Modi government’s ill-conceived moves to blockade Nepal for five months from September 2015 to February 2016 had extremely negative repercussions on bilateral relations.
To further complicate matters, the Indian government went out of its way to undercut the chances of K.P. Sharma Oli from becoming Prime Minister. With the coming together of the communist parties in Nepal and their victory in the elections last year, India’s influence, which was preponderant until then, has waned considerably. Oli is now firmly ensconced as Prime Minister. Nepal and China held joint military exercises for the first time last year. China has already supplanted India as the biggest aid giver. Nepal has become an important part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.
Bhutan has been under India’s defence and diplomatic umbrella since Independence. However, the country seems to be straining at the leash because of the ever-looming shadow of its big neighbour to the south. The Modi government’s impetuous decisions have not helped matters. The decision to pick a quarrel with China, over Doklam two years ago is an illustration. The disputed border in question was between China and Bhutan. When the Indian Army dispatched its troops to Doklam to face the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it was obviously done without the concurrence of Bhutan. Post-facto approval from Bhutan was, of course, obtained by India. It is not a secret that Bhutan wants to improve ties with China but has been thwarted by successive Indian governments, including the UPA government. The efforts of a Bhutanese government to set up an embassy in Beijing was nixed by the UPA government.
Then there was the disastrous demonetisation experiment that brought misery not only to the Indian public but also to the people of Nepal and Bhutan. Millions of rupees in old currency notes of the 500 and 1,000 denominations remain unexchanged in these countries.
The disenchantment in Bhutan with India was reflected when a Left-leaning party, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT), which wanted to break free from overarching Indian influence, won the 2018 elections. The DNT has also been critical of the construction of Indian-financed hydropower projects in the kingdom, which has made it more indebted. Bhutan, like India, has been experiencing jobless growth for the last five years. A growing number of Bhutanese, especially the youth, want the country to rely less on India. China is already the third biggest source of imported goods, and wealthy Chinese tourists are boosting the local economy.
Relations with the other South Asian neighbours are generally good, although India has to compete strenuously for influence with China. In the Maldives, a government perceived to be anti-India was defeated in the elections held in December last year. The newly elected President, Ibrahim Mohammed Solih, chose India as his first port of call after being sworn in. He has been quick to reaffirm his government’s “India First” foreign policy. At the same time, the new government is keen to safeguard the massive Chinese investments in infrastructure. In Sri Lanka, the Modi government was credited with effecting regime change by engineering the ouster of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015. However, Rajapaksa seems to be on the verge of staging a comeback. The Modi government felt that Rajapaksa was tilting towards China. The docking of a Chinese submarine at Colombo port and the leasing of the Hambantota port to China were viewed with alarm in India.
Sino-Indian relations, after sinking to a dangerous low following the Doklam face-off in 2017, are currently on an even keel. China was particularly unhappy that India chose to spark off the crisis along the Line of Actual Control when the Chinese Communist Party was preparing to hold its 19th Congress later that year. The event is held twice every decade and key decisions on policies and leadership changes are taken. The decision of the Modi government to suddenly escalate a minor boundary row into an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the PLA was a bolt from the blue for China and the international community. From all available indications, the precipitate decision to confront China in Doklam was taken at the initiative of Modi’s most-trusted advisers, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and military chief Gen. Bipin Rawat. The standoff was resolved after 75 days just before the holding of a Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) summit.
The Chinese leadership, already suspicious of India’s strategic and military embrace of the United States and tacit support for the U.S.’ South China Sea policy, had conveyed its strong misgivings to India. India was also a notable standout absence in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. All the other countries in the region are a part of it. China felt that the Indian government was not acting in a good-neighbourly spirit despite China being India’s biggest trading partner and provider of foreign direct investments. The Modi government, in a belated move to repair damaged diplomatic bridges, sent out a request for a one-on-one meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. That is how the “informal summit” meeting between the two leaders materialised in Wuhan, China, in April 2018.
After the meeting, Modi and Xi issued “strategic guidance to their militaries to strengthen communications” and to avoid Doklam-like situations from arising again. Modi seems to have tried to allay China’s fear about the growing military friendship between India, the U.S. and Japan. Soon after the Wuhan summit, Modi for the first time talked about India following a policy of “strategic autonomy” in foreign and security affairs. India, Modi said in a speech in Singapore, would not be part of any military bloc. The “Wuhan spirit” continues to prevail in bilateral relations despite irritants cropping up from time to time. At Wuhan, Modi and Xi also agreed to cooperate in building infrastructural projects in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the Modi government was caught napping as events started unfolding at a fast pace. Officials in Afghanistan never thought that the U.S. occupation would end any time soon. The Trump administration seems determined to sign an agreement with the Taliban and leave Afghanistan to its fate. China, Russia and Iran have already started talking to the Afghan insurgent group. Pakistan, of course, is playing a key role in facilitating an agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. India has been helping the Afghan government in various ways. All the goodwill and the diplomatic IOUs India has accumulated since 2002 will not be worth much if the Taliban takes over in Afghanistan. And when that happens, Pakistan will regain its strategic depth in its backyard yet again.
In West Asia, the Modi government has tilted towards the de facto alliance that was forged under U.S. supervision between the Gulf monarchies and Israel to fight Iran. The UPA government also had close military and security links with Israel, but the Modi government has gone out of its way to advertise it. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be a role model for Modi. India had put the Palestinian statehood issue on the back burner a long time ago. Now, with leading Arab countries, including Egypt, following suit, the Indian government does not have to be apologetic about its embrace of Israel, which in recent years has formalised its apartheid-style policies, turning Palestinians into second-class citizens.
Iran has reasons to be wary of the Modi government’s growing proximity to its enemies. Iran is the only country in the region with which India does not have a strategic/military relationship now. That was not the case in the past. Iranian submarines used to be serviced in Indian ports. The Trump administration’s arm-twisting has led to India drastically reducing its oil imports from Iran despite the unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran being rejected by the international community.
Although India has taken over operations of a section of the Chabahar port in Iran, the country is not happy with the slow pace of infrastructure development there. The U.S. would like India to fully comply with its sanctions regime on Iran though a temporary waiver has been extended up to March. Chabahar is crucial for India’s exports to Afghanistan and the Central Asian region.
India is still buying oil in limited quantities from Iran despite the threats from the U.S., but in the case of Venezuela the Modi government seems to have totally capitulated to the illegal and unilateral demands of the Trump administration. John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Adviser, issued a dire warning to countries buying oil from Venezuela. India was one of the biggest buyers of Venezuelan oil and the second largest customer paying in cash. Venezuela announced that it would no longer be exporting oil to India in the third week of March, soon after Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s meeting with Bolton in Washington. “Do not be the economic lifeline for the [Nicolas] Maduro regime,” Bolton had warned Gokhale.
Venezuela said that it would now be selling most of its oil to Russia and China. India’s failure to honour its commitments to Venezuela at this crucial juncture of its history will be seen as a betrayal of South-South solidarity and Non-Aligned Movement unity. The Modi government apparently hopes that in exchange for its capitulation on Venezuela, the Trump administration will be more relenting on Indian oil imports from Iran. India, to keep the “U.S. First” Trump administration happy, has been importing large amounts of crude oil from the U.S. to offset the cuts in supplies from Venezuela and Iran.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is putting pressure on India on the trade front. The U.S. cut off India’s duty-free access to the U.S. market in February despite the extremely close relationship the two governments enjoy. The two countries have already inked three key defence agreements, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, in the last five years. The U.S. signs such agreements only with countries with which it has exceptionally close ties.
Changing equations with the U.S.
During Modi’s term in office, the U.S. has emerged as the biggest supplier of arms to India. India has once again become an eager participant in the quadrilateral annual military exercises with the armed forces of the U.S., Japan and Australia. The Trump administration, in a nod to the current government’s nationalistic sensibilities, now refers to the Asia Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific. The quadrilateral exercises, which China views as hostile posturing, will be held in the Indian Ocean. The four countries are vociferous proponents of “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.
But Trump wants more concessions on other fronts from India. The Modi government was caught in an embarrassing position after first announcing that Trump would be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day this year. For reasons not stated, Trump declined the invitation from his “friend” Modi.
Russia must have been watching the evolving India-U.S. relationship carefully. Indian foreign policy has not yet given up its formal allegiance to a multipolar world despite distancing itself from some of its principles. India continues to be part of the BRICS grouping. India joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation last year in which China and Russia are the leading players. Russia still provides more than 60 per cent of the equipment for India’s armed forces. Despite objections from the Trump administration, the Indian government went ahead and signed an agreement to purchase the S-400 mobile air defence missile systems from Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India in 2018. The $5-billion deal was delayed for some years because of U.S. sanctions on Russia.
After the recent flare-up with Pakistan, the Modi government inked a $3 billion deal to lease another nuclear submarine from Russia. The U.S. cannot afford to punish India for the deal as it would impact adversely its ability to sell more weaponry to India and entice it into its putative military alliance against China. Despite some obvious strains in the relationship, the India-Russia partnership, in the words of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, continues to be “a special, privileged and a strategic” one.