Foreign Policy

Selfie diplomacy

Print edition : January 20, 2017

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj with Sri Lanka's Deputy Foreign Minister Ajith P. Perera upon her arrival in Katunayake on March 6, 2015. Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP

Modi with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in the Airport Express Metro in New Delhi in April 2015. Photo: PTI

The Prime Minister’s personalised foreign policy approach fails to deliver.

AS Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has patented his own style of diplomacy. He has gone on a record number of foreign visits in the past three years in his efforts to meet the strategic and defence goals the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has laid out for the country.

The External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, hardly accompanied him on the more than 50 state visits he has undertaken to foreign countries. Sushma Swaraj seemingly is treated with benign neglect by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The only substantive press conference she has held was after she completed two years in office. She is mostly in the news for her tweets on Indians who find themselves in difficult circumstances being rescued by the Indian government. There have been barely any tweets from the External Affairs Minister on the fate of the 39 Indians who have been missing since the fall of Mosul in 2014. Sushma Swaraj is not even part of the Cabinet Appointments Committee and had no role in selecting the Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar, after his predecessor, Sujatha Singh, was unceremoniously shunted out by the Prime Minister.

Modi also prefers to talk directly to senior bureaucrats on key issues, frequently bypassing the External Affairs Minister. It is also not a secret that the Prime Minister gives a lot of weightage to the advice given by the National Security Adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval. The inputs of right-wing think tanks that have proliferated in the capital, many of them with close connections with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), also play a role. Tibetan and Uighur activists were invited by a think tank run by the NSA’s son Shaurya Doval. Ram Madhav, BJP general secretary and RSS activist, is also known to be playing a key role in foreign policy matters on issues relating to the Indian subcontinent and China.

Ajit Doval, along with Nripendra Misra and P.K. Mishra, who have been given key positions in government, has been part of the right-wing Vivekananda Foundation. One of the first foreign visits Modi announced was to Israel. The RSS’s admiration for the Jewish state is well known. Modi has still not fulfilled his commitment to visit Israel, but there has been an exchange of visits by the Indian and Israeli Presidents. Under Modi’s watch, India for the first time abstained in a United Nations resolution condemning Israeli atrocities in Gaza and the occupied territories.

As for the Prime Minister, he treats the media with barely disguised contempt. He has not bothered to address an open press conference since taking over. There have of course been no discussions in Parliament on important foreign policy decisions the Modi government has taken. Modi’s trips to foreign capitals are also aimed at enhancing the personality cult among the Indian diaspora, which has been carefully crafted by his handlers. The Hindu supremacist and hyper-nationalist image Modi has assiduously cultivated seems to have impressed a cross section of the Indian diaspora, as was illustrated by the rock star reception he got in places such as New York and London. However, there are very few important foreign policy gains to boast of, despite Modi’s self-proclaimed personal chemistry with world leaders such as Barack Obama, Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin. He has tried his personalised style of diplomacy with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and had personally invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and heads of other South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries for his inauguration. But within a short time, relations with Pakistan and China started deteriorating.

The calling off at the eleventh hour of the India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary-level talks at the insistence of the PMO derailed the prospects for the resumption of the dialogue process. Modi gave the impression that he wanted to kick-start the process again when he made an unannounced visit to Nawaz Sharif’s home in Lahore in December 2015. But the apparent diplomatic flexibility displayed by Modi hardened into open hostility after the terror attacks on Indian Army bases. Prospects of talks between the two countries now have all but diminished.

India’s relations with China have become frosty under Modi’s watch as was illustrated by Beijing’s refusal to accommodate India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Modi once again tried personal diplomacy with the Chinese President on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit to persuade China to set aside its objections to India’s entry into the NSG.

Under Modi’s stewardship, there has also been no enhancement in India’s prospects for a permanent seat at the high table of diplomacy—the U.N. Security Council.

De facto military ally of U.S.

Modi’s priority has been strengthening relations with the West, particularly with the U.S., and Japan. In the process, Modi and his advisers have made India a de facto military ally of the United States in the looming confrontation with China. The signing of a Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) with the U.S. in 2016 coupled with New Delhi’s endorsement of the U.S.’ position on the contentious South China Sea issue are signals that China had to heed. On the Tibet issue also, India has started taking a more proactive position. The Dalai Lama is given more prominence by being invited to official events. The Dalai Lama has been given permission to once again visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. Tawang is among the important places of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists. Another important Tibetan religious figure, the Karmapa Lama, was also allowed to visit Tawang in late 2016, further angering China.

Under Modi’s stewardship, India has so far refused to join the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. India and Japan are the only two Asian countries that have not joined the OBOR initiative. In fact, the Indian government sees the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is connected to OBOR, as a threat to its security interests.

As India under Modi’s watch moves closer to the West, China has markedly improved relations with India’s immediate neighbours. China is busy investing in key infrastructure projects all over South Asia. In the last week of December, it was announced that Nepal and China would conduct joint military exercises for the first time. The Indian government has conveyed to Kathmandu that it is unhappy with this announcement.

India’s relations with Russia are not as warm as it was in the recent past. Russia also seems to be weighing its diplomatic options given the direction in which India under Modi is heading. Russia has started selling military weaponry to Pakistan. Russia, Iran and Pakistan have met for tripartite talks on Afghanistan, excluding India. The three countries are not averse to talking to the Afghan Taliban. They view the emerging threat from the Daesh (the so-called Islamic State) as a bigger danger.

Under Modi, India has given the impression that it prefers to be taken seriously by the West rather than strive for regional integration or strengthening organisations such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa). Modi did not bother to attend the 2016 Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit nor did he depute his Minister for External Affairs to the summit.

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