Foreign Policy

Look West, Act East

Print edition : June 12, 2015

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Barack Obama during the ceremonial reception for the U.S. President at Rashtrapati Bhavan on January 25, 2015. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

Modi meets his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, in New York in September 2014 on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session. Photo: Vijay Verma/PTI

The NDA government has maintained continuity in foreign policy with a more pronounced pro-Western tilt if anything, and its diplomatic initiatives, a mix of gains and misses particularly in the neighbourhood, have been driven by a Prime Minister who has made a conscious attempt to engage with the diaspora in his frequent travels abroad.

AS the travel logs show, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been spending a considerable amount of time in foreign climes. On his many visits abroad, he has steadfastly refused to take the External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, along. Important foreign policy decisions now seem to be exclusively formulated within the confines of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). This trend started during the tenure of the previous government after it went on overdrive to secure the United States-India nuclear deal. But in those days the foreign office at least provided serious inputs that were acted upon. Modi’s one year in office has been marked by ad hoc policy decisions and a highly personalised diplomacy. Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was not allowed to complete her term. Modi is very comfortable on his foreign jaunts, especially when he meets the Indian diaspora. He has gone out of his way to cultivate the non-resident Indian (NRI), and if the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has its way, very soon NRIs will be given the right to vote.

On his trips abroad, Modi treats NRIs as a vote bank. On at least two occasions he criticised the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on foreign soil. He went to the extent of claiming that it was only under his leadership that Indians had become proud of their nationality. “Earlier, you felt ashamed of being born an Indian. Now you feel proud to represent the country. Indians abroad had all hoped for a change in government last year,” he told an audience of Indians in Shanghai during his recent visit to China. Modi continued with the theme at his next port of call, Seoul, where he once again addressed NRIs: “There was a time when people used to say that we don’t know what sins we committed in our past lives that we were born in Hindustan.”

The decision to summarily call off Foreign Secretary-level talks with Pakistan and Modi’s conduct during the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama are some other illustrations of the PMO’s grip on foreign policy initiatives.

After the BJP’s sweep in the general election in 2014, Modi sprung a pleasant surprise by inviting his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, and leaders of other SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries to his swearing-in ceremony. Though Modi had spewed vitriol on the Pakistan government during the election campaign, and despite the reservations expressed by Pakistan’s security establishment, Sharif accepted the invitation. After his resounding victory, Modi had said that his foreign policy priority would be India’s immediate neighbourhood. But after the initial bonhomie, India is back on familiar terrain in the region. After New Delhi called off the Foreign Secretary-level talks, there has been very little forward movement in ties with Pakistan. The Line of Control has been peaceful for the past few months, but there was a month-long escalation in cross-border firing before the Assembly elections in Maharashtra and other States earlier in the year.

The precondition that India has imposed on Pakistan has made the resumption of comprehensive peace talks between the two governments difficult. New Delhi insists that Pakistani diplomats should not meet the representatives of the Hurriyat for consultations on the Kashmir issue before the talks. It was the Pakistani High Commissioner’s meeting with the Hurriyat that led to the Modi government cancelling the talks at the eleventh hour. The diplomatic rap on the knuckles had undermined Sharif domestically. The Modi government now wants a resumption of the dialogue process, but it will be difficult as the Pakistani side continues to insist on Kashmir remaining the core issue. Pakistani diplomats have said that they will keep on consulting the separatist Hurriyat leadership.


In India’s immediate neighbourhood, as the SAARC summit last year revealed, India stands isolated on key issues. The majority of the SAARC members had wanted to consider favourably China’s application to be a full member of the grouping. This year, there have been some diplomatic gains for New Delhi in the South Asian region. The Modi government has been given credit for regime change through the ballot box earlier this year in Sri Lanka, though it claims that it had no role to play in the surprising electoral outcome. It was apparent that New Delhi was not too happy with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on a variety of issues. He was perceived as being too close to China and impervious to commitments towards the Tamil minority. New Delhi protested when a Chinese submarine docked in Colombo. The new government led by Maithripala Sirisena has yet to consolidate itself, but a new bonhomie in bilateral ties is visible. During the Sri Lankan President’s visit to India in February, the two countries signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement, the first ever by two South Asian countries.

The Modi government’s biggest achievement in foreign policy so far is the land swap deal with Bangladesh in May (“United on border”, page 87). The deal was to have been signed during the last years of UPA-II, but it was scuppered by the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal and the BJP, which was then in the opposition at the Centre. The Sheikh Hasina-led Bangladesh government, despite its closeness to India, was perturbed by the delay in the implementation of the accords it had signed with the Indian government. The Teesta water-sharing accord is yet to be implemented.

At the same time, India’s diplomatic clout with other SAARC countries has diminished. The government in Maldives, which is currently running roughshod over the opposition and has incarcerated the former President, Mohamed Nasheed, seems to be moving away from the special relationship with India. Relations with Nepal are good, but there are lingering suspicions about India among sections of the establishment, notably among the left-wing parties. Even India’s quick humanitarian response to the devastating earthquake in April this year, while earning widespread appreciation, came in for criticism for the manner in which the relief and rescue missions were projected in the Indian media.

There has been a diplomatic setback for India in Afghanistan after the departure of Hamid Karzai from the presidency last year. The new incumbent, Ashraf Ghani, has made it clear that he prefers stronger ties with the U.S., China and Pakistan. His priority is to kick-start peace talks with the Taliban and at the same time improve the security situation in his country. Pakistan and China are helping to broker talks. For the first time, the Afghan Intelligence Services have officially started cooperating with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Afghan President visited India only in April after his visits to China, Pakistan, the U.S. and Iran. He has said that he does not want his country’s territory to be used for proxy conflicts between third countries.

Pro-Western tilt

Though the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under Modi is basically continuing with the UPA’s foreign policy agenda, the BJP’s right-wing ideology has made the present government’s pro-Western tilt even more pronounced. The Indian government is tacitly siding with the U.S.-led alliance in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The joint statement issued during Obama’s visit to India talked about the need to ensure “the freedom of navigation and overflight—especially in the South China Sea”. The Chinese have strongly denied that the territorial dispute poses any threat to the freedom of navigation and point out that it is one of the busiest waterways in the world. In the joint statement on the shared vision on the Asia-Pacific region, the two leaders “agreed to develop a road map that leverages our respective efforts to increase ties among Asian powers, enabling both our nations to better respond” to the emerging economic, diplomatic and strategic challenges in the region. During his visit to Japan, Modi openly talked about an “expansionist China”.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the Chinese side, while keen to strengthen political and strategic relations, is wary of India’s long-term intentions. It is particularly concerned about the Modi government’s decision to restart trilateral military exercises involving the Indian, U.S. and Japanese navies in the Indian Ocean region. Before Modi’s recent visit to China, the Indian government, taking into account China’s strong displeasure, postponed the scheduled trilateral military exercise.

By the end of its first year in office, the Modi government has realised that it needs to keep Beijing humoured. For Modi’s so-called “make in India” campaign to succeed, he desperately needs foreign direct investment. Only China has the cash surpluses necessary to fulfil Modi’s ambitious neoliberal dreams. China has indicated that it is willing to play ball provided India does not get into an even deeper strategic embrace with the U.S. India, after some initial dilly-dallying, has joined the China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Washington was putting pressure on its allies to stay out of the AIIB, which it sees as a challenge to the World Bank. Among major countries, only the U.S., Japan and Canada have opted to stay out of the AIIB. India, however, has so far not embraced China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road projects. The interlinked projects aim to connect Asian countries by putting into place new transport and energy infrastructure. The Modi government is instead focussing on its own “Act East” policy, which aims at fostering closer links with Southeast and East Asian countries. The Modi government has announced “Project Mausam” aimed at reviving India’s historical maritime, cultural and trade ties with Southeast Asia.

As yet, the concept of “strategic autonomy” in India’s foreign affairs has not been given up completely by the Modi government. New Delhi has assured visiting leaders from Russia and China that it is still in favour of “a multipolar world”. The Indian Prime Minister during his tour of China emphasised the important role the country is playing in groupings such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and RIC (Russia, India, China). Indian officials said that the presence of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee in Moscow on the 70th anniversary of the Great Patriotic War was another example of “strategic autonomy” in foreign policy. Western leaders had boycotted the anniversary. The Chinese and Indian Presidents were among the 30 heads of state who deigned to attend the historical anniversary.

Russian concerns

India’s relations with Russia continue to be warm, though the Russians have not failed to notice the general pro-Western tilt in the NDA government’s foreign policy. Most of the multibillion-dollar defence deals that India has inked in the last one year have been with the U.S., Israel and France. Modi’s decision to okay the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter planes during his visit to France came in for a lot of criticism from Indian defence analysts and military experts as there was nothing in the deal about transfer of technology to India. Until recently, the Rafale was not able to find a market. This year, Egypt, Qatar and India decided to go in for the expensive French fighter plane, reviving in the process the French aerospace industry, not Modi’s “make in India” vision. The Russians feel that they are not being given a level playing field in India these days in the area of defence procurement.

Low profile in West Asia

In the West Asia region, which is critical to India’s economy and security, the Modi government has adopted a comparatively low profile. It followed the U.S.’s diktat on sanctions against Iran. Now with the U.S. on the verge of lifting sanctions on Iran, the Modi government has announced that it will start looking seriously at the joint development of the Iran’s Chabahar port in the Persian Gulf. The nearby Chinese-developed Gwadar port in Pakistan is poised to become an important transport hub for goods and hydrocarbons from Central Asia. India also wants a slice of the pie as Chabahar will provide access to the Central Asian market and beyond for Indian goods. Otherwise, the NDA government seems to be looking at the region with benign neglect. The President of India in his first speech outlining the new government’s priorities forgot to mention the region in its entirety.

With large parts of the region in turmoil, the Indian government has been forced to react. During the inhuman bombing of Gaza by Israel, the Indian government advised both sides to exercise caution. Modi, like his parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), has a soft corner for Israel. He made it a point to catch up with old friend Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session last year. Intelligence sharing and defence cooperation have been further intensified between the two countries.

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria may create long-term problems for India. Some young men from India who joined the IS have been killed in the region. The fate of the 40 Indians who were captured by the IS when it overran Mosul is no longer shrouded in much of a mystery. There were reports last year itself that the Indians, who were from Punjab, were lined up and killed by an IS firing squad. One man, an eyewitness, it turns out, gave this information to the Indian government soon after the massacre occurred. The Indian government still insists that they are alive but has provided no proof to back up its claim.

However, it was quick to send ships and planes to rescue Indian citizens stranded in Yemen in April this year after the Saudi government launched an unprovoked attack on the country.

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