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Foreign Policy: Seizing The Initiative And Maintaining The Momentum


We Indians are experts at offering knee-jerk reactions to innovative and ‘out of the box’ initiatives in most areas. We praise or criticise without sufficient objectivity and take positions based on political affiliations and ‘company policy’ when conservative, protocol bound and procedure heavy areas like foreign policy are involved. Shri Narendra Modi’s invitation to all leaders of SAARC to attend his swearing-in ceremony has been one such event. Instead of objectively analysing it, most commentators have adopted a ‘pro or anti’ stance to the proposal.  Viewed in isolation, it is nothing more than a strong leader reaching out to his immediate neighbours and asking them not only to share his moment of triumph, but also share his vision of a stable and prosperous neighbourhood. However, a deeper analysis of the invitation has much that will interest serious students of international relations in terms of political signalling, seizing the initiative and maintaining momentum.

Many sceptics of Shri Narendra Modi believed that because of his state centric rise in Indian politics, he would take time to settle down in centre heavy areas like foreign policy and issues relating to external security. By making the first move in foreign policy even before his core team was in place, Modi has made it very clear that he understands regional dynamics and will be providing the broad framework within which his team will have to work. There is also a clear message that he is willing to take risks and seize the initiative whenever the opportunity presents itself. A deeper examination of the extension of a hand of friendship to all India’s neighbours at this moment reveals that there is very little downside risk. Not only will it allow the SAARC heads of state to interact and size up the newly elected leader of the region’s most powerful player and gauge the mood in the country following his sweeping election to power; it will also allow Modi to get an unbiased and uncluttered ‘personal perspective’ of whom he can do business with and whom he has to be chary of.

In his own practical way, Modi must have realised that his invitation was a ‘fully loaded’ magazine of political signalling. By inviting Rajapaksa and indicating that he is keen on a Teesta Water settlement with Bangladesh despite many domestic reservations, he is sending out a message to political allies and rivals in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal that national interests will always override regional interests. At the same time, he seems to be telling them, ‘have faith in me – I will not do anything to undermine your interests, but we have to resolve the existing problems and not allow them to fester for too long.’

The international flavour of the time is one of creating regional partnerships – China and Russia have signed a thirty year multi-billion dollar deal involving supply of Russian gas to an energy starved China through a pipeline that itself is going to cost $70 Billion to build and maintain. It is not long before the Central Asian Republic jump on this train too Similarly, the US, Japan and and other SE Asian nations are attempting to build a US led ‘pivot in Asia’. The EU has pulled together to bail out Portugal, Greece and Spain from economic disaster – NATO has proved in recent times with its interventions in Libya and Mali without much US participation that it is not a spent force as many had started believing. In short, there is a vigorous realignment of forces taking place in what is looking like the re-emergence of a multi-polar world of a different kind. In such a churning, India and SAARC have to move fast, or run the risk of being further marginalized. Can we see this initiative as a new-found nimbleness in Indian foreign policy initiated with the fresh perspective of an ‘outsider’.

The history of the 20th and 21st centuries are replete with examples of leaders who have exploited vacuums and seized the initiative, but failed to deliver when it came to converting these initiatives into viable policies, strategies and doctrines for the future. Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I, and Nehru’s Panchsheel Agreement with China in the 1950s immediately comes to mind as noble, workable, but unsustainable propositions. This is where maintaining momentum will be the key to take this invitation forward and converting it into deliverables, the framework for which is already available within SAARC. Amongst the many deliverables that Shri Narendra Modi would be looking at for starters would be sustainable trade and energy agreements, shared mechanisms for combating terrorism and water sharing agreements amongst other agreements. There are likely to be many challenges in this foreign policy endeavour. Without doubt, the biggest challenge will be Pakistan and the possibility of doing business with a civilian government that is attempting to show the world that it can operate independent of the army’s traditional remote control. Will the army allow this to progress beyond a point, or will it use the Jehadis and the Taliban to disrupt any likely peace process by invoking the familiar Kashmir card? Will Pakistan allow India to engage with Afghanistan beyond a point? The bottom line with Pakistan is that while suspicion cannot be the foundation of any meaningful progress, India cannot let its guard down – it would be naive to imagine that Mr Modi does not realise that. It would also be reasonable to assume that in the case of the other SAARC countries, difference can be ironed out by sagacious statesmanship and aggressive economic diplomacy, not of the exploitative kind that China has unleashed in Africa, but of shared progress in which India’s investment and effort has to be in proportion with its size and aspirations. In simple terms – India’s generosity has to shift focus from short term to long term gains that cannot be measured, at times, in real terms. Come 26th May, there is a possibility that Modi’s ‘Swearing in Diplomacy’ will lay the foundations for a proactive and vigorous foreign policy that seeks to concurrently cement regional and global ties. Narendra Modi deserves a chance to shape India’s foreign policy in his own earthy and realistic manner devoid of a lot of academic and intellectual jargon.

  • Guest

    NATO is a danger to India. Its very way of living and existence. NATO’s aim at core is to protect western interests. Most of the Indian editors and opinionators dont even understand that like the Indian hawaldars, administrators, writers and sephoys worked for British India. The equivalent of those today are the multinational employees, US visa holders, and writers employeed at various global institutions. Only a Gandhi, Bose and Patel can remove them from India because not following their run of game.

  • shanker

    cannot agree more – a bit of common sense is all that it takes to solve things. I think many of us complicate things to either show that we are important or to just keep us occupied.

  • Ramamurthy Venkateswaran

    As the author has rightly said that for every move of the new Government led by Shri Narendra Modi, there will be pro- and anti- views. One would have ordinarily expected that the new Prime Minister with inputs from the Foreign Minister and others will take the initiative of strengthening the bi-lateral / multi-lateral relations with neighbors and blocs. In a stroke, the new Prime Minister, even before the Council of Ministers came into existence, did a wonderful thing, by inviting the heads of governments of SAARC countries. They also reciprocated the gesture by representing themselves in the swearing in ceremony. However, the sour note came from within i.e. the dissidence came from a few CMs – CM of TN, CM of WB, etc. More cleverly, the fence sitter Shri Naveen Patnaik, is in his world. He does not think that Odisha is part of India, unlike the volatile J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his parivar. These people have not risen from the grass root, but leadership was entrusted to them, therefore they are ignorant of the pulse of the masses. They say something and forget about it. Shri Modi being a person who rose from the grass root level, understands the logic and pulse of the people. Shri Modi has made a good beginning by inviting them to his swearing in ceremony and initiated certain confident building measures. Sensitive issues could be kept in the cup board for the time being. By taking head on, the previous government did not make much headway. One should wait and watch further moves of the new Prime Minister and his government in softening the relations with neighbors/blocs for a mutually beneficial ties, as the author has summed up.

  • Ramamurthy Venkateswaran

    I may add a bit more. Even prior to the notification of the General Elections 2014, some of the diplomats of the European countries established contacts with the then CM of Gujarat. While UK was late, the US position was much delayed and consequently, it is rumored that the US Ambassador to India was withdrawn for lack of initiative. So far as foreign policy is concerned, out of box solutions at times takes the lead and as in a war, the first strike wins the war. Shri Modi’s invite to SAARC heads is an out of box initiative and I welcome it.

  • Satish K. Tyagi

    Mr Modi has made his intentions very clear. It is going to be India China axis along with Russia which is going to be forged . This is most natural and logical balance of power in the interest of SARC and the Asia at large.

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