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When Narendra Modi swept to power in May 2014, nobody could have dreamed that he would mould India’s foreign policy so decisively. Observers foreign and domestic all opined that Modi would not focus on international affairs much, choosing to pay attention to the domestic Augean stables he inherited instead. The wisdom was that, at most, Modi’s India might modestly reach out in its own neighbourhood but anything beyond the region was going to be primarily to buttress the country’s faltering economy.

If one is looking for unqualified and substantial successes, there is little the Modi government can boast about. Yet this is not to say that there have been no successes – rather, India’s track record in translating words into deeds has been poor throughout its history and it would be foolhardy to bet on noises in the pipeline too soon.

The achievements of the Modi government are also weighed down by the burden of public expectations – the Indian media has published report cards on the government’s performance after its first 100 days in office, at the six month mark, the one year mark, and now at the end of the second year in office. No other administration has ever faced such close scrutiny. Furthermore, the gargantuan scale of what needs to be done to bring the country in line with the ambitions of the younger generation dwarfs into insignificance any accomplishment of the National Democratic Alliance.

The general tenor on Modi’s India has been positive. The optimism in the international mood can be gauged from the increase in the flow of foreign investments into India; Japan has made substantial investments in infrastructure, the most visible project being the high speed rail project connecting Bombay to Amdavad. Similarly, France is playing an active role in developing smart cities in India as more and more of the country urbanises over the next few decades. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also expressed interest in India’s road, maritime, and riverine infrastructure. All this is in line with expectations that Modi would focus on rebuilding India’s economy and developing the infrastructure needed for it to emerge as a regional power.

The past two years have also seen India take a greater interest in its backyard, Central and West Asia. Counter-terrorism and energy topped the agenda but Delhi’s pockets are not deep enough to spur breakneck development on visible markers of progress such as gas pipelines. India is also one of the largest investors in African countries. While previous administrations have also sought similar goals, the Modi government has brought an energy to the negotiations that leaves many observers cautiously optimistic of movement.

Frequent visits to the country by US defence officials also indicates the initial flowering of a mature security relationship that will have consequences for the entire greater Indian Ocean region. The US-India relationship that had been reincarnated by the George W Bush White House and stagnated since received new impetus once Modi took office. The Defence Technology and Trade Initiative has moved forward as Washington has been keen to help India build better aircraft carriers and talks have been going on to manufacture the M777 ultralight-weight howitzer in India under the Make-in-India scheme. Recently, there has even been talk of Boeing establishing a manufacturing line for its F-16s and F-18s in India and offering the F-35 to Delhi.

In the last two years, India has lost some of its timidity in participating in the Malabar naval exercises with the United States and Japan. Delhi is close to concluding a military logistics agreement with the United States that could significantly expand its influence over the Indian Ocean region. The Indian Navy – in the midst of a massive expansion and modernisation programme – may well evolve as the face of Indian soft power and diplomacy in the region as its augmented capabilities allow it to provide services such as security, search & rescue, and humanitarian relief for the regional commons. This will integrate India more closely with the ASEAN and SAARC nations who will become accustomed to seeing Indian power as a benign force.

In the neighbourhood, the Modi government can certainly report Bangladesh and Bhutan as success stories of its foreign policy. The border agreement and several agreements on energy, infrastructure, transportation, trade, and nuclear cooperation have made Bangladesh more comfortable with its parent state. However, things have been a mixed bag in Sri Lanka and disappointing in the Maldives and Nepal. These are difficult customers, trying to profit from playing India off against China as India tried – and failed – to do with the US and USSR during the Cold War. Without significant economic leverage, these states will continue to be a nuisance to Delhi.

Modi’s greatest diplomatic failure is alleged to have happened with Pakistan and China. Nothing could be further from the truth: while Pakistan sees India as an existential threat, China views its southern neighbour as eventually capable of sabotaging its rise and competition with the United States. The incursion by Chinese troops into Indian territory during a state visit by Xi Jinping to Delhi, not to mention Bejing’s obstructin of Indian accession to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UN Security Council as a permanent member, indicates that the Middle Kingdom is content to allow relations to simmer for now. The overtures to Islamabad, unequivocally rebuffed at Pathankot, suggests an ugly truth that Modi – and perhaps South Block – cannot admit publicly: that Pakistan is not a problem that can be solved with patient diplomacy. It is naïve to expect any improvement of relations with either of these two neighbours.

The Modi administration has done well in showcasing India economically and has also achieved a modicum of success on security matters given the options available to it. Afghanistan is an illuminating example: it can hardly be denied that it is in India’s interests that the war against Islamists, be they al Qa’ida, ISIS, or a Pakistani proxy, is best fought with Afghan sinew. Yet Delhi has been reticent to generously supply Kabul with training and material because of its own shortcomings. After decades of material and intellectual neglect, it would not be surprising if India’s armed forces find themselves shackled more by their own politicians than by the enemy.

Modi’s foreign policy has not stopped with nation-states – he has reached out to the Indian diaspora, multinational corporations, and potential technology disruptors to accelerate India’s growth. At the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris in December 2015, India played a key role in promoting solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels by committing to expand solar energy to 100 GW (installed capacity) by 2022. The International Solar Alliance, launched by the prime minister, will keep the country at the centre of innovation and regulations concerning solar energy.

While India has been content to involve itself in international and regional groups such as the G-20, BRICS, ASEAN, SAARC, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation until now, the Modi government has taken the policy one step further and started to nurture groups in which it could assume leadership roles such as the 1997-established Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Bhutan Bangladesh India Nepal . Delhi has also started to bypass Pakistan in SAARC via multilateral treaties with other neighbouring states such as the connectivity project between Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and itself which Modi revived in November 2014; the BBIN Initiative was established in 1997 as the South Asian Growth Quadrangle but little had been accomplished since.

In the two years of the Modi government, Delhi has strengthened its foreign policy along all axes – economic, security, and diplomatic leadership. While it is easy to be impatient with the rate of progress, the limitations on India’s economic, military, and diplomatic power also ought to be borne in mind. With continued progress, the several frustrations observers feel with the elephant will gradually dissipate.


This post appeared on FirstPost on May 27, 2016.

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