Foreign Faux Pas


With many showstoppers, Indian foreign policy management is elevated under the leadership of Modi, but still it is a need of the times to concentrate on strategic content



The author is a Calcutta-based senior journalist who has worked in various news and current affairs magazines, has spawned scores of good journalists and has in-depth knowledge of global issues, especially Left politics

Scene 1, Act 1:

Investiture of Narendra Damodardas Modi as the Prime Minister of India.Rashtrapati Bhavan. New Delhi.

Dramatis Personae: Narendra Modi, Pak premier Nawaz Sharif, along with all the top leaders of the ASEAN countries, Bollywood stars… and a demure Chinese delegation that had been put on to the sidelines, purposefully. It seemed to be a euphoric, though intellectually dumbed down, India that the Dragon had been subjugated. Modi surprises the world by warmly greeting Pak premier Nawaz Sharif

Scene 1 Act 2:

Nuclear Supplier’s Group meeting.

Dramatis Personae: India, US, Australia and China, among others. China blocks India out of the Group. USA’s support does not help

Scene 2 Act 1

Arunachal, East Kameng District:

Dramatis Personae: 250 Peoples Liberation Army men; ‘crying foul’ External Affairs and Defence Ministry officials. The PLA spent nine hours inside Indian Territory, even as India is haggling with China for ascendance into the NSG

Scene 3 Act 1

Madison Square frenzy

Dramatis Personae: Narendra Modi… Narendra Modi… Narendra Modi…

Modi at the frenzied Madison Square song and dance, painstakingly organised by disgruntled Foreign Ministry officials who had been shamed to ask the Obama administration officials to make arrangements for an unprecedented show of public relations gimmickry.

All the right Rightist noises made. Modi wants to forget he was once banned from this country

Scene 3 Act 2

Dramatis Personae: Narendra Modi, Donald Trump, Visa H-1B, expat Indian community who cheered for Modi in Madison Square

Modi congratulates Trump. The latter has a special telecom with the former. Then Modi is hit: Visa H-1B in doldrums, dreams of lakhs of indians to settle in the US smashed!

The moral, even before we begin this story: a foreign policy gone phutt!

Jet setter Modi

The number ‘56’ fits into the gait of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has a 56 inch chest and to date he has made 56 foreign trips. He has two more years to complete his first term as the PM. Never did any PM make so many trips even during multi-term tenures. Viewers, glued to television at home, found in Modi a globetrotter, neatly presented through a hi-tech choreography. Thus journeying around the globe, he went to Australia, Seychelles, Mongolia, Mauritius, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Brazil and even Fiji, where no Indian prime minister had gone in 33 years. And to put things in the right perspective, the ‘Right Honourable’ President of Nepal Bidhya Devi Bhandari was on her first ever-foreign trip (to India, naturally) although she had taken over on 29 October 2015.

Of these 56 trips, he made single visits to 36 countries: Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, Fiji, Germany, Iran, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Mongolia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Tajikistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and Vietnam. He went to the USA four times and twice each to Afghanistan, China, France, Japan, Nepal, Russia, Singapore and Uzbekistan.

Diplomatspaved the way for the publicity-mongering PM by living upto hisexpectations (read high ambitious) from the preparatory to his swearing-in on 26 May 2014, attended by topSouth Asian leaders including the Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif. Thus very soon, within three weeks, India’s 14th Prime minister began his foreign trip. It was followed by an unprecedentedly frequent series of foreign visits, one after another.

Modi’s first foreign destination as the PM was Bhutan, accompanied by the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, the then MEA Secretary Sujatha Singh and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval in Mid-June 2014.

Interestingly, all new Indian premiers visit Bhutan first and Nepal next before embarking on other foreign trips. This is to keep the bulwark against the Red Dragon – who Modi had disdainfully sidestepped during his swearing in. Reciprocally, all Bhutanese and Nepali premiers and (in case of Bhutan, King) make New Delhi their first port of call: they need the dolls that India offers to keep them out of the Dragon’s clutches.

In Bhutan, the sartorially self-conscious PM promised extended development cooperation with what was for longIndia’s protectorate. Within a month, he went to attend the Sixth BRICS summit. There the same three biggies were his companions, plus the Minister of State for Finance and commerce Nirmala Sitharaman, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) adherent.

In the first week of next month, August 1914, he went to Nepal and promised a $1 billion as concessional line of credit to the land-locked Himalayan country. “This amount is separate from the previous assistance that India has already provided to Nepal,” hesaid, obliquely referring to the $250 million line of credit to Nepal through the Exim Bank of India.

Pasting an imprint of Hindutva, Modi made an offering of 2,500 kilos of sandalwood to the Pashupatinath Temple, where about half a kilo of sandalwood paste is used daily on the Shiva linga. Worth several crores of rupees, it would meet the needs for smearing the Shivalinga for over 12years. As it wasa Monday on the auspicious month of Shrawan, thousands of devotees had thronged the temple, which was decorated with flowers to greet the Indian Prime Minister. Again, publicity stunt well planned had gotten him the right applause!

And he offered alsoa gimmick-tinged HIT – acronym for Highways, Ways and Transways as a model development formula for Nepal at the Constituent Assembly.Little wonder, he drew a huge applause from thelawmakers responded with a wide applause, more so when he announced a $1 billion) “concessional line of credit for various development purposes.” Thegrant was earmarked for infrastructure development and energy projects as per Nepal’s priority.

Image All

The former RSS pracharak made promises after promises. He set out his primary foreign policy goal as follows. “For me more than what the world thinks of the government, what the image of the country is, is important.” He aspired to restoreoverseas confidence inIndia’s unfoldingeconomic story through external policy applications. He posed himself as a sorcerer-full of tricks unlike his predecessors through a showmanly gift of the gab.The PM made him identifiable for hisflip-flops on Pakistan and blockbuster oratory that made a hypnotic impact on NRIs who received him in a grand fashion out of high expectations. Nevertheless, catering to the bumptiousPM has not been easy for Indian diplomats who had to tread an extra mile to request foreign governments to go out of the way to make the PM’s public engagements a grand success.

Thecritics were confounded. They had toreassess an entirely different prime minister whose foreign policy-strategy was not wholly an overhaul of existing policy, but continuation, albeit outwardly, a continuation ofthe UPA style, but more articulately andconfidently. Frederic Grare, Director, South Asia Programat theCarnegie Endowment for International Peace,appropriately identified the distinctive differencebetween the Manmohan Singh administration and the Modi’s: the ability to communicate effectively. This brought in an instant diplomatic way-forward.

At the same time, the rightwing Hindu PM left no opportunity unusedto cash in on the goodwill built during the golden era of Nehruvian foreign policy. But certainly, he did so disingenuously, in keeping with the RSS philosophy. True, the Modi regime made visible headway in improving Indo-US relations but at the cost of Nehruvian tradition of independent foreign policy on the construct of principled policy of non-alignment.However, the dilution of Nehru-India tradition in external affairs policy and applications took place during the post-reform (IMF) Congress regime, especially when Dr Manmohan Singh was the PM.

Scene 4 Act 1

Dramatis Personae: Modi, Nepal

Two years of Modi’s foreign policy is branded by flip-flops on Pakistan and his blockbuster speeches to mesmerise the non-resident communities and the grand receptions thereon.But attuningto the PM’s vanity has not been easy for Indian diplomats. They have had to walk the extra mile to request foreign governments to go out of their way to make the PM’s public engagements a grand success.

But gimmicks don’t pay, and Modi’s foreign policy reverses came into the open, despite his success in reachingout to the Indian Diaspora, especially the plutocrats in West Europe and the USA through a deft use of social and mainstream media coverage, even in Pakistan.

The first strike – muchmore penetrative thanIndia’s media-hyped ‘surgical strike’ in Pakistan came from Nepal, and a sandalwood tree fell on India’s head.How structurally brittle was Modi’s Look East Policy was evident when Nepal got engulfed in amajor economic crisis due to a bleeding economic blockade for three months almost within a year after the Indian premier’s visit as a sequel to a prolonged stand-off between the government and the Terai-centric political parties of Madhesis, most of which sympathise with the ruling BJP. Importerswere forced to incur atrociously demurrage charges at Kolkata port, the key route for Nepal’s third-country imports, paying penalties at the rate of Rs 40 million per day, according tothe president of the Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Pashupati Murarka. The country waslosing Rs two billion a day as a result, the FNCCI chief of Indian –origin claimed. The heat of anti-India fever that had remained in slumber was back.

KirtiNidhiBista, a three-time PM of Nepal (albeit, under a truncated democracy with the monarchs breathing down the neck of anyone craving for the fragrance of liberty and freedom of speech and association) thunderedin an interview to a pro-Left English daily:“Since 1950, India has not been treating us as equals. India was a British colony for about two centuries. We have always remained an independent nation. India is now free but it wants to colonise Nepal. It should shed this colonial mindset.” Kathmandu obviously moved Nepal moved closer to China thereafter.

Pathankot Bricks

The diminishing returns of globetrotting diplomacy rather than bringing benefitstothe nation was feltin the Indo-Pak relations when within weeks of Modi’s visit to Lahore in the very first week of 2016 (another publicity flurry), heavily-armedterrorists invaded Indian Air Force station in Pathankot. The PM was visibly embarrassed, the subsequent verbal missiles shot against Islamabad notwithstanding.

Another setback was feltwhen somewhat abruptly in the arena of BRICS (the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa axis), when Modi’s expectation of getting friendlier to China after the BRICS summit and the Sabarmati Summit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping was belied.

In 2016 Beijing came out in its true colours by stating bluntly that India would get a pass provided Islamabad gave a green light. Little wonder, with Beijing taking sides with Islamabad, Sino-Indian relations went into reverse gear.

China slapped a lesson on India becoming a member ofNuclear Suppliers Group. Modi administration’s tough retaliation, as if to unnerve Beijing about the security of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, waiving the Dalai Lama card (allowing him to visit the contentious Arunachal Pradesh) increased the hyphenation further.

India under Modi hukumat seems to forget thatChina isa $12 trillion economy and $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. Beijing’s defence budget of $152 billion is four times that of India’s $40 billion defence spending, which again is less than Beijing’s mere naval budget ofabout $50 billion.

Porting Futilities

The weakening of India’s geopolitical clout was felt when China succeeded in getting a contract in Sri Lanka for operational control of the Hambantota port.Needless to emphasize,Chinese construction of the Gwadar port and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor are nightmarish pointersto New Delhi, although objective situation doesn’t suggest the possibility ofanother Kargil misadventure along the border. More worrisome is Bangladesh’s Sheikh HasinaWazed government’s current inclination to buy military hardware from China – making India wary. Already, two Chinese submarines were bought by Bangladesh. Modi had sent the erstwhile defence minister Manohar Parrikar to Dhaka to persuade the latter to depend more on New Delhi for military enrichment. Parrikar offered US$500 million line of credit to Bangladesh for the purchase of military hardware for purchasing fast patrol craft for its coastguards and radar for its air defence. Butthe Bangla PMgoes by military advice, naturally. Sources in the defenceministry reveal that top Bangladeshi military functionaries point out tothe poor quality of Indian defence supplied to Nepal and Myanmar, in sharp contrast to the easy-to-operate and comparatively cheaper Chinese war equipment.

Thus, what could be discerned either as a smile or as a smirk on the face of Sheikh Hasina, even as Modi broke protocol and received her right at the airport, has become a stain on India’s face.

Few Pluses

It’s not that India earned no points in the arena of foreign policy during the last three years. Modi’s primary foreign policy goal, restoring overseas confidence in the India economic story, was a mission accomplished. As he declared, “For me more than what the world thinks of the government, what the image of the country is, is important.”

One, attitudes towards India among the Persian Gulf monarchies – the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in particular – show signs of a turn around and billions of dollars arepledged for Indian infrastructure. Two,there has been the slow separation of Pakistan from Arabstates. But this is in sync with Islamabad’s distancing from Washington.Three, there is a beef up in relationship with African nations. India now trades more with Africa, crossing$100 billion, than the US or Japan. Four, India’s plans for transforming the Bay of Bengalconcretely withbetter diplomacy, since 2016.

The Sagarmala projects, resurrection of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) is an international organisation involving a group of countries in South Asia and South East Asia. These are: Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal); tie up with Japanese finance to connectivity projects are a sign of a well-defined approach in solvinggeopolitical puzzles. Last, but not at all the least, India is now unprecedentedly closer to the USA. At the same time, one must put things in perspective: never had Washington been on dictating terms with India.

The erstwhile US President Barrack Obama was greeted profusely by the Indian PM at the Republic Day Parade in 2015. Modi’s addressing Obama as ‘Barrack’ was uncouth in diplomatic terms but a message of a bonhomie as never before. In continuation, Modi almost instantaneously ensured the new US President- Donald Trump, who has greater ideologically affinity with the present Hindutva-designed regime than before.

Nonetheless, the outcome of all this out of 56 forays in globetrotting is peanuts.

All the present NDA regime did is a fast demolition of India’s independent foreign policybased on non-alignment.

When India’s first PM Jawaharlal Nehru, together with Josip Broz Tito of erstwhile Yugoslavia and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt enunciated the principles of non-aligned, an enraged US Foreign Secretary John Foster Dulles abused it as ‘immoral. That intrepid stand had heightened the international prestige of a newly –independent country. This act of pushing the Nehruvian tradition to oblivion will surely make Dulles smile down from the stars up there!


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