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Foreign policy seldom occupies an important position in political agenda during electoral campaigns, and 2014 in India is hardly any different. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate has, however, evoked a little more interest from various sections. One reason for this abnormal curiosity is that anything Narendra Modi does attracts attention. Another reason is that the refusal by the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States to grant Modi a diplomatic visa because of his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots makes him an even more interesting prime ministerial candidate, especially given his apparent popularity with large swathes of the Indian people. Conversely, the Gujarat chief minister has enjoyed much success in his foreign visits to China, Japan, and Singapore.

Modi himself has said little about the shape his foreign policy would take but his actions as Chief Minister belie a strong emphasis on trade, particularly with Asia and the countries of the Indian Ocean rim. Yet commercial links alone do not dictate foreign relations and in this era of the global village, Modi must think on several interconnected factors that will affect the security and esteem of India.

Structural issues

The making and study of foreign policy is beset with difficulties at several levels. First, there are structural issues – despite scores of its own languages, India is predominantly an English-speaking state and moves in Anglophone circles. The dominant views in this system are set by the United States and to a lesser extent, Britain. This is largely because of the presence of hundreds of well-staffed and well-funded think tanks who see the world through Anglophone eyes. Issues such as non-proliferation, global warming, and terrorism and defined, unchallenged, by American interests. Multilingual historians are often surprised by the diversity of debate in other languages even when there is broad national consensus.

The Anglophone discourse is a result not of some master conspiracy but of a failure to empathise with rationalities other than one’s own. India’s best response to the present situation would be to open its own national archives to scholarly scrutiny and encourage its universities to produce policy experts in the plethora of fields governments usually interfere in. A narrative informed by the history of Indian policy-making is the first step in generating superior inputs to current policy makers.

A second challenge India faces in its international relations is infrastructure – the lack of energy, transportation, public safety, health, and a sound legal system make the country not immediately attractive to foreign investment. It is telling that an Egypt still recovering from the turmoil of the Arab Spring saw more tourists in 2013 than India did. Though infrastructure does not strictly fall in the realm of external affairs, it makes an enormous difference in attracting valuable partners and forming strong ties with them.

A third question Modi must ponder on is the structure of India’s military, the stick or hard power of foreign policy. What sort of force structure is required for the nature of tomorrow’s conflicts? With the proliferation of nuclear weapons in South Asia, it is unlikely that India’s neighbours will engage in 20th century style conflicts over land with India; rather, they’ll rely on asymmetric warfare and/or well-trained fast and mobile units with heavy firepower, good lines of communication, and a high degree of stealth. India will need to be able to deploy force in a variety of theatres – maritime anti-piracy operations, mountainous border engagements, thrusts across the desert, and others.

Remedying these fundamental deficiencies will give India a stronger hand, despite its understaffed Foreign Service, with which to project its views and defend its interests in the international community.

Central & South Asia

A state’s immediate neighbours are always of the greatest concern; India has seen its influence slip considerably in recent years, or at least, has had its impotence exposed. With smaller states who can pose no military threat on their own like the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, India must be generous in its development aid and facilitate closer ties via education, cultural exchanges, and easier travel regulations. However, India must be careful to avoid the tail wagging the dog – preferential treatment must be reciprocated by good faith. Modi must see to it that Indian officials do not come off as overbearing and condescending to the neighbourhood as they have been accused of in the past and walk that fine line between arrogant regional power and regional locus of power.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will shift some of the burden of keeping the Central Asian country free from Taliban rule onto India. It is more logical for Afghans to fight the Taliban for their own country than for India to follow in the erroneous footsteps of imperial Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. India must act in concert with other regional powers with similar interests – Russia and Iran – to help Afghanistan repel the Taliban and rebuild its society and economy. Any less of a commitment would irredeemably jeopardise Indian economic and security interests. The challenge would be to strangle the Taliban’s flow of aid from Pakistan. Modi must keep international attention and condemnation on Pakistan’s aid to the Islamists in Afghanistan while cobbling together a coalition to provide military and financial aid to the non-theocratic forces in Kabul.

Iran can be another important regional partner for India. Both countries have somewhat similar interests in Afghanistan, and Iran is also the last stop on the proposed International North-South Trade Corridor that would connect the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea and serve Turkey, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Iran would be a vital partner in this project as well as in providing security to Afghanistan against the Taliban. Although Iran does not look to India as a major economic partner, there are, nonetheless, several projects of bilateral interest India must push to develop quickly. Among these are the much talked about development of Chabahar port, its attendant road, rail, and pipeline infrastructure, and oil & gas pipelines between the two countries. Modi must put Iran towards the top of his foreign policy agenda not only to capture a new, post-sanctions Iranian market but for the ripple effect the INSTC can have for trade in the region.

Over the years, Pakistan has elevated itself from a nuisance to a threat with its support of terrorism from behind its nuclear shield. Endless summits have failed to silence the guns in Kashmir, let alone bring peace to the region. In fact, all evidence still points to support of terrorist cells by various arms of the Pakistani government, and men like Malik Ishaq and Hafiz Saeed roam free. At this low juncture, one option left to Modi is to suspend talks and downgrade diplomatic relations to the consular level. In the past, India has shown itself to be too willing to talk regardless of provocations and dishonoured commitments by the other side. A concerted effort to highlight internationally Pakistan’s links to terrorism must be mounted. India must try to throttle international aid to Pakistan or affix conditions that demand aid be sanitised from contact with terrorism via sub-contractors, finance, labour, etc. Any talks that do take place between the two states must be only via a third party. Modi must be bold – but not reckless – and explore other strategies to put pressure on Islamabad, be it via Afghanistan, Balochistan, or along the LoC.

The Great Powers

China has always been India’s bête noire since the Communists seized power in 1949 and annexed Tibet in 1950. India’s nuclear and rocket programmes took on a military dimension solely to deter China’s ambitions south of the Himalayas and Delhi’s quest for the nuclear triad was to assure Beijing that it had second strike capability. The irony will not be missed when one notes that China is also India’s largest trading partner today. This should not lead to an underestimation of the threat China poses to India – it has helped Pakistan acquire nuclear weapons, surrounds India with its string of pearls, blocked India from gaining membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, prevented India from being raised to a permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, supports insurgencies against India, claims Indian territory to this day, maintains military pressure along the LAC, and has been a negative influence on any international aid flowing towards the development of India’s North East.

A muscular policy against China is not possible at India’s present capability levels. Furthermore, attacking trade between the two countries would only make the Indian consumer suffer by having to pay more for goods. Modi must strengthen trade with India’s northeastern neighbour as he has repeatedly suggested whilst keeping an eye on the balance of trade. China must be banned from core sectors of the economy such as telecom and infrastructure in sensitive areas. If India wants to make its position on Tibet ambiguous again and invite the Dalai Lama to Race Course Road or express sympathy for the plight of the Uighurs, it would only reflect China’s position on Kashmir. Simultaneously, India must strengthen ties with Southeast Asia via universities, road, rail and air links, and trade; this, however, will not be easy as Chinese aid far surpasses anything India can muster due to its superior economy. Nevertheless, Southeast Asia has for long sought an Indian alternative to Chinese hegemony and will welcome it if provided. In essence, Modi must deliver on India’s much-hyped but insubstantive Look East Policy.

Outside India’s immediate mandala, India’s relationship with Russia and the United States are of great importance to it. Despite recent purchases of big-ticket items from France and the United States, over 70% of Indian military hardware is still sourced from Russia and the situation is unlikely to change in the near future. Moscow has concerns regarding US intentions in what has traditionally been the Russian sphere of influence; NATO expansion eastwards (Georgia) and US ballistic missile defence stations in Poland and the Ukraine have forced Russia to tolerate rising Chinese power on its borders and in its eastern peripheries. Modi must assure Russia that India’s apparent drift towards the United States is not directed at it but other regional aspirants for hegemony. India must stress common concerns such as Chinese belligerence, a volatile Afghanistan, rising costs of defence research and development, and US intervention in areas of mutual concern. Modi must also push for greater access to Russian markets for Indian companies.

India’s ties with the United States have been in the doldrums since the end of the George W Bush administration. Even then, arguably, the optimism was felt more in Washington than in Delhi which did little to reciprocate. India’s difficult process in ratifying the Indo-US nuclear deal, the nuclear civil liability law [link] it enacted, and the Non-Alignment 2.0 document sources close to the government produced gave the United States pause in its embrace of India. Similarly, the United States’ continued assistance to Pakistan, its policy in Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, and its ambiguous position on China give India little reason to rush into the US’ embrace. The recent distraction over the mistreatment by the United States of Indian Acting Consul in New York, Devyani Khobragade, may have soured public opinion but left common interests unchanged.

Despite the many disagreements the estranged democracies have, Modi must remember that India is not “looking for a groom for its daughter.” India must realise that the United States will not commit to Asia without a reliable partner; furthermore, US concerns about the end use or theft of its technology are as valid as Indian concerns over end-users of the Brahmos missile (if they are ever exported). Modi must promote trade but also push for more transfer of technology, explore joint development and production of defence items, yet ensure that US interpretation of intellectual property law does not put India at a perennial disadvantage. Intelligence sharing, joint training and exercises, energy, advanced materials, nuclear research, space exploration, and environmental protection are just some of the areas where Indian and US interests converge. A significantly more substantial relationship is possible and of greater value to India if it could modify its nuclear civil liabilities law and jettison flawed doctrines such as non-alignment. A lesson India can emulate from its northeastern neighbour is that the more valuable a partner India becomes to the United States, the more influence it will have on US policies in Asia. Modi cannot allow himself to be distracted by public relations snafus and trivia and push forward to forge what may well be India’s most important relation of the first half of the 21st century.


Less powerful than Russia or the United States but no less valuable to India as partners are France, Israel, and Japan. The lack of a large power disparity may even psychologically pave the way for more stable partnerships. France is one of the few countries that has rarely been critical of India, even in the aftermath of the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1974 and 1998. In fact, the Indo-US nuclear deal was the culmination of a French idea to bring India into the nuclear fold. Despite the struggling negotiations over India’s purchase of the Dassault Rafale, the two countries are mutually compatible in several areas such as nuclear energy, infrastructure, chemicals, and telecommunications. Most importantly, both France and India seek a larger role in global affairs today – the former seeks to regain its earlier grandeur and the latter to acquire it anew. Modi must capitalise on this psychological dynamic to forge not just a partnership with France but also a new multipolar world order.

Japan can be India’s most reliable ally in Asia to balance China. Modi is already known for the importance he gives relations with Japan and this must be expanded even more. Given Japan’s reluctance to enter into the arms market or enter into civilian nuclear cooperation with India just yet, Modi must engage with Japanese parliamentarians across the political spectrum to gain their confidence. The mutual benefits of close ties, if achieved, are already clear to all and business and cultural exchange will foster greater trust at more levels between the two peoples. Modi’s task here is less diplomatic and more social and cultural – perhaps cold balance of power calculations would be better received if couched in the language of shared values, threats, and goals.

For decades, relations between Israel and India were clandestine at best because of Delhi’s belief that the Arab World would prove a moderating influence on its Islamic brothers in South Asia. However, the evolving political realities of the Arab-Israeli struggle allowed India to establish diplomatic relations with Israel by 1992. The two countries have little in common but exchanges today include military hardware, intelligence sharing, and agricultural know-how. Despite differences in their views on Iran and China, the threat of international Islamic terror brings Jerusalem and Delhi closer to each other. Modi can use this as a springboard to encourage greater joint development of military systems; in a cost-sensitive world, indigenous hardware with export potential should interest both parties. After the loss of Iran, Israel may look to India in a revival of its periphery doctrine.

If there is any psychological value in being one of the few countries in the world where Jews have never been persecuted, Modi can leverage that to develop tourism, agriculture, medical research, and educational ties. Most people know the tiny Levantine country for terrorism and wars but Israel has a strong knowledge economy with many gifted scientists, doctors, and engineers who work on projects that can be of great interest to India such as electric cars and desalination. Modi must see Israel other than through a narrow security prism and build relations at a societal level.

Reaching Out To The Rest

India obviously wants stellar relations with all countries in the world and would like to engage in commerce with as many as possible. Australia is fast emerging as a major supplier of energy to India and may be a partner in security for the Indian Ocean Region. Africa presents a massive opportunity for Indian business houses in raw materials, agriculture, education, and infrastructure. However, South America has received little attention in Indian thinking despite the presence of another BRICS member. Modi must explore opportunities in this far-flung land and make India’s reach global. An Indian alternative to Chinese aid and investments in international markets will prevent the balance of power from becoming too skewed in China’s favour while opening more and more countries to Indian products, services, and ideas.

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Foreign policy has never been so important in independent India’s history except perhaps during the early days of the Cold War. India needs the international community for security, trade, and aid. The rise of China has brought a Cold War upon India’s doorstep – already India is competing with China in Africa and Southeast Asia for resources and influence – and meaningful ties with similarly minded countries will be of mutual benefit. India has been able to plod along at a lethargic pace until now because it was not at the forefront of international developments. Now, as one of the largest economies and a country directly threatened by the rise of a hostile neighbour, India can no longer afford such nonchalance. Modi’s foreign policy must measure up to his domestic vision and captivate a new generation of Indians; it must be ambitious in its goals, wide in its scope, measured in its formulation, and assertive in its implementation. As the Good Book tells us, where there is no vision, the people perish (Míshlê 29:18).

This post appeared on Gateway House on February 26, 2014.