Narendra Modi is on tour again. He was in Scandinavia and England last week, and is now headed to China. Virtually every media outlet in the nation is referring to his Wuhan visit as an effort to reset relations between the two nations. After Hillary Clinton, as United States secretary of state, presented the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov with a large red button inscribed “Reset,” the word became a staple in geopolitics. Considering the way US-Russia relations have gone since then, one should approach the promise of new beginnings with some caution.
What have Modi’s four years of international hyperactivity gained for India in foreign relations, and in the related areas of defence and internal security? When I assessed his performance two years ago, I concluded the benefits were largely intangible and that Modi was playing the same game of smoke and mirrors in this area as he had in domestic policy. A further two years down the line, relations with many of our neighbours have deteriorated, and his image as a leader who can get things done needs questioning.
India’s foreign policy objectives have remained consistent for the last 25 years through a number of changes of regime, differing more in emphasis than in fundamentals. In the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, prime minister Narasimha Rao set India on a course of gradual accommodation with the US and Israel. This accorded with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) inclinations and laid the foundations of a foreign policy consensus just as Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms in the same period laid the groundwork for an economic consensus. Since then, the economic and diplomatic philosophies of the two largest parties—the Congress and the BJP—have grown so alike that posturing takes precedence over substantive debate. Nobody believed the BJP was ideologically opposed to foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail or to the India-US civil nuclear deal, but the party castigated both measures as anti-national since Singh’s administration passed them.
Modi can be more openly pro-Israel than any Congress prime minister, not having to contend with a large Muslim membership with strong anti-Zionist feelings. Behind the scenes, though, Israel’s weapons exports to India have risen consistently as has trade and technology transfer between the two nations. We have experienced nothing like the whiplash shift marking the entry of Donald Trump into the White House.
Logic suggests that in a situation where policies are nearly identical, implementation will make the difference. It suggests, as a corollary, that Modi, a charismatic, industrious, ambitious man determined to stamp his name on history, would be a better vehicle for furthering India’s bipartisan foreign policy goals than his predecessor, who possessed far less real power. Yet, Modi has no signature achievement to compare with Singh’s bold push for the US-India civil nuclear deal at the cost of the Congress’s alliance with the Communist parties, whose reflexive anti-Americanism balked at the agreement.
Our relations with China are currently at such a low ebb that both sides are forced to speak of new beginnings. The India-Pakistan political dialogue is frozen while ceasefire violations and deaths of army personnel along the line of control (LOC) have escalated sharply. Modi bet early in his tenure that he could, by sheer force of personality, shift India-Pakistan relations onto a smooth track. Once his off-the-cuff decision to stop by Pakistan for tea with Nawaz Sharif produced no practical improvement, his lack of a Plan B was exposed. The trajectory of India’s worsening relationship with Pakistan hints at the downside of having a larger-than-life figure like Modi at the helm. Everything becomes about him in a way that isn’t in the nation’s best interest. The dangers of megalomania have been brought into sharp focus by Trump’s rise, and Modi suffers the same disease, though its symptoms aren’t as manifest in his case.
His first big mistake was demanding changes to Nepal’s newly approved constitution and imposing an unofficial blockade of that land-locked nation in 2015. Nepalis naturally interpreted this stance as that of a regional hegemon seeking to impose its will on a democratic government. Nepal reacted by building closer ties with China as a bulwark against India’s domination.
To the south of India, China’s acquisition of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka in an equity-for-debt swap has underlined the massively increased clout of India’s largest neighbour. Security experts speak of China’s “string of pearls” strategy, and view Hambantota as an addition to that string, alongside the Gwadar port in Pakistan and the country’s first overseas military base in Djibouti.
In recent years, China has made rapid incursions into the Maldives, a nation with close historical ties to India. The Maldives’ current ruler, Abdulla Yameen, has subverted the courts and democracy, and India doesn’t know quite how to respond. Yameen signed a free trade agreement with China last year, enthusiastically backed Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, and leased an island to China for military use, leading some commentators to question whether he was handing the rudder of the nation to the Chinese.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that China is outmanoeuvring us in the geopolitical chess game, given that its economy is nearly five times the size of India’s. What stands out in its moves, though, is a well-thought-out strategy clearly executed, and I fail to see similarly clear thinking on our part.
The purchase of Rafale fighters from France and the building of the bullet train link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad with funding and technological input from Japan are relatively small deals in the larger scheme of India’s relations with the world, but they appear emblematic of the kind of confusion and ad hocism that prevails in the current administration’s decision-making. To my knowledge, nowhere in the world is high-speed rail restricted to a single track, yet there is no indication that India’s bullet train is going to be a network rather than just a link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Given the time frames involved, it would be absurd to build one line entirely before taking on future projects. The absence of long-term planning indicates that the bullet train is a vanity venture along the lines Modi recommended during his days as Gujarat’s chief minister, stating that we should build a high-speed rail link as a way of showing the world our strength, irrespective of whether it would be popular with commuters. How a Japanese-designed rail link could be marketed as a sign of India’s strength is another matter.
In the case of the Rafale, the Indian Air Force was scheduled to acquire 126 aircraft, most of which would be built in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. After the French manufacturer Dassault flagged quality-control problems at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, the purchase went in limbo. On a visit to France in April 2015, Modi threw out the old agreement and signed on to buy 36 aircraft off the shelf, with no technology transfer. A number of commentators hailed the move as a bold effort to cut through red tape and provide the fighter-starved Air Force some succour. The Indian government announced that two new squadrons would be inducted into the Air Force within two years. Three years on, there is no sign of the first Rafale being handed over. So much for cutting through red tape. To make matters worse, India has just pulled out of its long and tortured collaboration with Russia on the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft, leaving the air force critically short of firepower.
In my last column, I analysed the conception, roll-out, and legacy of demonetisation as a way of puncturing the myth of the Modi administration’s competence. While it hasn’t pulled any stunt as crazy as the note swap in the international arena, and continues to exude authority and credibility, the administration’s foreign policy performance has lacked vision, and produced few tangible gains even in terms of augmented exports in new markets. It has been frequently confused and pursued an ad hoc, personality-driven style that has contributed to a worsening of relations with most of our neighbours.
Modi is like a stylish batsman of whom much is expected but who consistently fails to deliver big scores. Four years on, he’s put far too few runs on the board while Xi’s been on a century spree. It might be time to accept the man’s technique is fatally flawed, and drop him from the national team.