First take on foreign policy and power projection under Modi
by R Hariharan on 31 May 2014 2 Comments

Narendra Modi has been given massive mandate by the people in the just concluded general election. The BJP has received a majority on its own steam, so Modi enjoys a lot of freedom to shape and execute his policies without depending upon the support of coalition partners. But he has clearly indicated that he would like to carry all parties along with him in furthering his national development agenda.


Despite Modi’s huge public presence, New Delhi’s so called liberal left-leaning “intellectual” class which had rallied against him had never been able to carry out a dispassionate analysis of Modi and his style of governance. His success has made a mockery of the traditional yardsticks of class, caste and communal equations used by analysts to study Indian political operations. He had planned and fleshed out the entire BJP election campaign using the best available human resources and technology to achieve his campaign goals.


His assertive style of leadership has a few characteristics: leading from the front, clear articulation of objectives, single minded pursuit of goals, ability to motivate his team, and thinking out of the box, assisted by indefatigable energy and oratorical skills. This had helped him make Gujarat a frontline state in development. So we can expect him to largely use his experiential learning as chief minister while serving as prime minister. As a man with abundant commonsense we can also expect him to adapt his style to suit the complexities of his new job at the national level. 


Foreign policy


There is a lot of convergence in the overall foreign policy vision of the Congress party and the BJP. However, Narendra Modi’s grammar and articulation of policies will make a difference to the policy dispensation. His assertive leadership style and expression will bring much needed clarity in foreign policy pronouncements. His development model will offer greater opportunities for foreign countries to expand economic relations with India, beyond the limitations of real politick. As Modi is an assertive leader, countries like the US and China which have trashed Indian sentiments as part of their policy would be more cautious in handling sensitive issues.


George W Bush had laid a strong foundation for revamping the US-India relationship on a firm footing. Dr Manmohan Singh reciprocated by pushing through the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement in the teeth of opposition. However, President Obama failed to carry it forward and both sides seem to have lost their energy or interest to keep up the momentum for reasons of national policy over the last six years.


Strangely, in a convoluted policy decision, Narendra Modi was singled out for a US boycott after the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat in 2002. The State Department withdrew his visa to visit the US. The American foreign office spokesman reminded Indians that the visa ban was still in force and Modi would have to apply to get it revoked – this even as Indian exit polls were predicting a Modi victory. So much for American diplomacy!


So the importance of President Obama’s warm message congratulating Narendra Modi on his success and inviting him to the US has to be viewed in this murky environment muddied by some of the US policy dispensations affecting India. A good example is the US’ vindictive application of IPR norms to haul up Indian pharmaceutical companies competing successfully in global markets against US pharmaceutical companies.


However, Modi, being a pragmatist, will be ready to improve trade and economic links with the US. But improvements in strategic security relations would require improvement in personal equations between the leadership of the two countries. One thing is clear, Modi will ensure India is no pushover and that US cannot take India for granted; to overcome the mess of its own making, the US will probably have to walk an extra mile as Modi starts implementing his economic agenda.




After dealing with Dr Manmohan Singh who was pliable enough to accept Pakistan as a victim of terrorism (of its own making no doubt!), Modi is likely to be more assertive without being aggressive. There is likely to be enough scope for improving India-Pakistan trade relations (provided the Pakistan Army sheds its India-phobia). However, Modi will insist upon Pakistan dismantling its terrorist infrastructure across the Line of Control in Jammu & Kashmir and hand over or prosecute terrorist masterminds involved in 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai before reopening substantive high level dialogue between the two countries.


Nawaz Sharif is struggling to talk peace with Pakistan Taliban terrorists even as they continue to carry out bomb attacks. He is also facing an increasingly restive Army which finds rapid marginalisation of its extra constitutional authority. While he walks the tightrope between these two forces, we may not expect any dramatic moves to bring immediate cheers in India-Pakistan relations in the near future.  




Even before the general election, China had said it was looking forward to deal with the new government to carry forward its relationship building process with New Delhi. China’s readiness to invest in India would be welcomed by Narendra Modi as it could help his development agenda, particularly in infrastructure building, especially in the power and railway sectors.


Modi has a warm personal equation with Japan which has appreciated his development model; as a result Gujarat has benefitted from Japanese investment. The China-Japan relationship is perhaps going through its worst phase now. In spite of such constraints, the entrepreneurial spirit of Modi is likely to nuance India’s relationship with both Japan and China.


He is likely to overcome Chinese resistance to enlarging India’s role in ASEAN and SAARC nations by making economic bonding more attractive with these countries. At the same time, New Delhi is more likely to reciprocate visibly  to China’s mindless pinpricks against India in the name of buttressing territorial claims like stapled visas or denial of visas, though the border talks going on are likely to continue at their own slow pace. 


Sri Lanka


Narendra Modi’s success has probably put Colombo in a tizzy. Unlike the earlier Indian Prime Minister, Modi is a strong, assertive leader, so Sri Lanka will find it cannot take him for granted. BJP’s two major allies in Tamil Nadu i.e., the MDMK led by Vaiko and the PMK led by Dr Ramadoss have been strongly espousing the Eelam cause. They have been demanding New Delhi take strong action against Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes. This is compounded by the resounding electoral success of the Tamil Nadu chief minister Ms Jayalalithaa, who had taken a strong anti-Rajapaksa stance. This could push BJP’s Tamil Nadu allies to adopt an even more strident posture; though the allies’ electoral performance had been poor in the Lok Sabha poll, the BJP would probably like to build upon it to strengthen its precarious perch in Tamil Nadu. Their pressure could impact BJP’s Sri Lanka policy.


However, BJP leaders have clarified that despite the electoral alliances in Tamil Nadu, they would stick to the basics of India-Sri Lanka relations: ‘No’ to Tamil separatism, ‘Yes’ to building upon the country-to-country relationship regardless of leadership, and ‘No’ to extremism of any kind - Tamil, Jihadi or Maoist species. Modi is a pragmatist and counts Buddha (one of the Dasavatars of Vishnu) as a part of Hindutva. Hence it would be simplistic to say that Modi or the BJP would be closer to the Tamil Hindu than to the Sinhala Buddhist. 


However, Modi will probably be more demanding than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, particularly as President Rajapaksa has gone back on his promises to India to implement the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution to fully empower the provincial councils. Sri Lanka should be prepared to rework its lop-sided strategy and resume the political dialogue with Tamil political parties. Implementing the 13th Amendment in full will be its first step. We can expect the Modi government to emphasize this aspect. The same applies to implementing the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka.


To sum up, Narendra Modi is a man with his own mind. He sets his own goals and makes others work to help achieve them. Modi has an uncanny ability to see the big picture and strategise his actions. His agenda is likely to be more inclusive than exclusive. The election campaign he masterminded and successfully executed is a testimony to his way of functioning. So what BJP leaders say may not be automatically translated by him into action in the way they want. We will have to wait and see the way he functions in handling entirely new challenges before we judge him. 


Courtesy: Chennai Centre for China Studies C3S Paper No 2099 dated May 17, 2014. The article includes points made by the author at a panel discussion on Doordarshan TV on May 16, 2014 

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