It has now been almost a year since Narendra Modi took office and by the time the year passes, he will have visited 15 countries, not counting attendance at the state funeral of former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew or the five multilateral summits he participated in. Modi is undoubtedly the most well-travelled prime minister in Indian history and this has been an unexpected yet interesting development, for he was known primarily for his clear domestic vision before the general elections of 2014. In addition to his own visits, Modi has also received several delegations and sent his external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, to meet with leaders from other countries. All this adds up to a substantial foreign policy effort on the part of India’s new government and points to what some had suggested before the elections as a programme for a potential Modi government.
Modi’s foreign policy so far views the world in elegantly simple terms – there are states that can help India and there are states that India can help. Both of these categories are, of course, mutual but the description marks the dominant flow of power. In essence, the prime minister understands that a key ingredient in India’s stability, security, and economic revival is its region. Yet to carry the region, India will need tremendous assistance from countries that have the technological and financial wherewithal to support its ambitious growth. As a result, India is courting countries in its region such as Nepal, Seychelles, Sri Lanka, and Mauritius with as much enthusiasm as it is reaching out to economic powers such as the United States, France, Japan, and Australia. There is an enamourment among scholars as well as the public for doctrines and though it may be tempting to term this emphasis on the region as the ‘Modi Doctrine,’ it is nothing but a common sensical approach to one’s neighbourhood that finds long precedence in history.
India has paid more attention to its neighborhood since Modi took office than it probably has in the past decade. Though Manmohan Singh had visited Mauritius in 2005 and Bhutan in 2008, the last visit by an Indian prime minister to Nepal was in 1997, to Sri Lanka was in 1987, to Fiji in 1981, and to Seychelles also in 1981. Modi’s state visits to these countries on its borders and in the ocean that bears its name all saw promises of increased trade, assistance with infrastructure development, cooperation in matters of mutual security, and the easing of travel restrictions. These relations build Indian influence in these countries as well as in regional fora where India might need more voices to support its agenda. For India, these links are not just about economics but also strategic assets as it seeks to modernise and expand its military capabilities while the states of the Indian Ocean Region gain by piggybacking on an expanding Indian economy. The trick is, for India, never to cause its neighbours to fear its expansion or they will resent it and seek to balance it with other powers within or without the region. If India’s neighbours feel that they too have a stake in her success, there will be little cause for suspicion as China experiences in Southeast Asia. To that end, missions like Operation Rahat – the rescue of civilians from war-torn Yemen – are valuable.
The rekindling of India’s ties with its neighbours depends to a large extent on the growth of the Indian economy. This requires a huge influx of capital as well as technology in almost all sectors of the Indian economy – infrastructure, education, industry, finance, security, and more. Modi has reached out to potential partners among the developed nations of the world who may have not only a financial interest to invest in India but strategic reasons as well. India has concluded or is close to concluding agreements on civil nuclear cooperation with Australia, France, Canada, and the United States; this will bring in reactors and fuel to power Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign that seeks to boost manufacturing in the country. Modi hopes to double India’s exports by the end of his first term. As companies like Airbus move parts of their operations to India, Modi is also taking his country militarily closer to the United States, Australia, Japan, and France with joint training exercises, intelligence sharing, and defence equipment procurements. A greater Indian role in the regional security commons is of interest to almost all parties in the region and beyond and Modi is capitalising on this sentiment to build India into a regional power.
There are undoubtedly domestic tasks that require the prime minister’s attention. Yet India’s needs cannot be met by domestic spring cleaning alone and requires international involvement, particularly if the country wants to leapfrog some of the technologies and learning of the second half of the 20th century. Modi’s moves on the international chessboard so far have not been merely formality but have begun to redefine Indian strategy and thinking. Most importantly, they are a distinct departure from Delhi’s policies during the Cold War as well as the quasi-governmental position of Non-Alignment 2.0. For such a momentous course correction, the visibility of the prime minister on the international stage is indispensable.
The fruits of Modi’s labours abroad will likely not be fully seen for at least a decade but there should be some signs of the results by the end of his term in 2019. For the first time in the history of independent India, the country seems to have a foreign policy that puts Indian ambitions at the centre. In the early years of independence, Jawaharlal Nehru’s non-alignment was structurally defined by a struggle that had little to do with India; later, foreign policy became subject to ad hocism and the personality of the prime minister rather than a coherent, cogent, and continuous programme. Now, under Modi, India is finally acting on the role that has been advised her and expected of her by her neighbours or decades.