By seeking to dramatise himself as a visionary foreign policy thinker and declaring ‘Neighbourhood First’, Modi lost much in the world, and that includes the countries in the neighbourhood too
By Sankar Ray
The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Damodardas Modi, has no parallel in the history of Indian parliamentary democracy. None of his predecessors from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to Dr Manmohan Singh in any tenure from six-year term (1971-77) of Indira Gandhi to the 13-day premiership (May 1996) of Atal Bihari Vajpayee had visited 84 countries in four and a half years or almost two foreign trips a month.
And the government of National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party had incurred Rs 4,343.26 crore only on advertisements and publicity through different media for those trips, according to a reply under the Right To Information to Mumbai-based RTI activist Anil Galgali, who sought the information from the Bureau of Outreach and Communication. This is aside from Rs 1,484 crore on maintenance of the PM’s aircraft and hiring of chartered flights, together.
And every time Modi goes abroad, he is accompanied by a 40-member crew from state broadcaster Doordarshan to beam the event live. All private TV channels telecast every event sans acknowledging the source of the feed or the footage most of the time. An eerie extravaganza.
But what is the cost benefit ratio? Or to elaborate it, has it generated financial flows benefitting the national exchequer or the economy? Is it substantially more than the costs incurred? To be candid, no.
Take the foreign direct investment. Between 2014-15 and 2015-16, apparently there was over 23 per cent increase in gross FDI that reached $55.5 billion in 2015-16, according to the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion.
But the Reserve Bank of India negated the claim. Between the two years, FDI in manufacturing fell from $9.6 billion to $8.4 billion. Moreover, the percentage of FDI flow, which was in the range of 35-40 for the four years until 2014-15, fell markedly to 23 in 2015-16.
The picture is more depressing according to the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development (ISID), which disclosed that FDI dropped further by nearly 30 per cent. During April-August 2016-17 compared to the same period of previous fiscal.
Critiquing the media-hyped “Make in India” of the PM, KS Chalapati Rao, co-author of the ISID report and its distinguished fellow stated, “according to the revised index of industrial production, the manufacturing sector’s annual average growth rate after 2014-15 is less than 4 per cent.
In exports as well, the picture is not rosy. In 2016-17 manufactured exports, including petroleum increased 5 per cent, but this should be seen in the backdrop of a steep fall in oil prices in the previous year. The average annual growth rate during the last two years also remains negative.
Rao added that the number of investment proposals increased in 2016, but remained below “the peak of 2011 or the grossly reduced figure of 2013 in the pre-Make In India period. There cannot be an FDI policy without an industrial policy that works in tandem with trade and technology policies”.
BETWEEN 2014-15 AND 2015-16, APPARENTLY THERE WAS OVER 23 PERCENT INCREASE IN GROSS FDI THAT REACHED $55.5 BILLION IN 2015-16. BUT THE RBI NEGATED THE CLAIM
Economic policy and strategy analyst Mohan Guruswamy who was an economic adviser for the major part of the first term of NDA government (1998-2004) pointed out the factors for the collapsing FDI, “over 60 per cent of FDI into India is of Indian origin.
It’s by round-tripping. To me, when India starts looking good to Indians, FDI will start pouring in. We still have too many restrictive laws and policies that make acquisition of land, building, and bank finances problematic. Even our labour laws are inhibiting”.
Hoopla & Blunders
Modi’s four years of foreign policy is unabashedly aimed at coating himself with hype and hoopla one after another, ostentatiously but there is a hyperactive push for subordinating India’s foreign relations to a round-the-clock exercise to make India look like a strategic power alongside projecting himself as a powerful personality.
And for this he has unashamedly posed himself as a super foreign minister, keeping the Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj subordinate under him.
But he committed major blunders from the beginning as he demanded changes in Nepal’s newly approved constitution and imposition of unofficial blockade of the Himalayan state in 2015. This had come as a boon for China which moved in towards an unprecedented close position to the newly-born democratic regime, rid of oppressive regal heritage.
To the south of India, China’s acquisition of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka in an equity-for-debt swap underlined the massively increased clout of India’s largest neighbour. Security specialists admit China’s “string of pearls” strategy, and consider Hambantota as an addition to that string, alongside the Gwadar port in Pakistan and the country’s first overseas military base in Djibouti.
India’s influence in bilateralism wanes perceptibly in Bangladesh and Maldives too.
About the Pakistan policy during the NaMo era, the less said, the better. Pakistan diplomacy under the present government remains ‘the weirdest link in the chain of foreign policy’.
The only cordial stable bilateral relations is on the Afghan front. 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 abject failures on the Nepal and Sri Lanka fronts exposes the hollowness of ‘Neighbourhood First’ as the main pillar of the foreign policy. Nailing the concept, the former external affairs secretary Kanwal Sibal has said that it has proved to be a non-starter “The world’s second most powerful country believes in ‘America First’.
India needs investments and access to technology. It needs to fulfil its defence needs through imports. It must secure its energy needs and defend its interests in international trade negotiations, besides seeking reform of the international financial and political institutions to obtain its rightful say in global governance, and so on.
None of these pressing needs can be fulfilled by our neighbours. And so, while it is a bonus to have a friendly neighbourhood, it is not a prerequisite for India’s progress and the achievement of its aspirations.”
Modi has actually been unconcerned about the formidable tradition of India’s foreign policy that enhanced India’s image in the world arena. Or maybe, he is intellectually incapable to perceive this.
Otherwise, he would not have been the first Indian premier to have skipped the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Venezuela in 2016, and expectedly, he was blasted by the Eurasia journal for his strange misperception in external policy, unlike his predecessors.
THE ABJECT FAILURES ON THE NEPAL AND SRI LANKA FRONTS EXPOSE THE HOLLOWNESS OF ‘NEIGHBOURHOOD FIRST’ AS THE MAIN PILLAR OF INDIA’S FOREIGN POLICY
“Modi’s absence in New York signals that he feels less need to personally meet with the business community, a regular focus of past UNGA trips. Similarly, giving NAM a pass demonstrates both that India now enjoys closer than ever ties with the US and regional powers.”
He was the first PM to have been absent at the NAM meet. He seemed to have blissfully forgotten that India together with Egypt and the erstwhile Yugoslavia formulated the non-aligned foreign policy when India was led by its first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, and presidents of Egypt and Yugoslavia were Gamal Abdel Nasser and Josip Broz Tito respectively.
On the contrary, he enthusiastically attended the World Economic Forum, which even his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh did not, in spite of being a globally recognised economist, and assigned the Union finance ministers to participate.
Ludicrously, Modi delivered the plenary address in Davos in January 2018 in Hindi as if it was a “bid for recognition of Hindi as a language—an Indian language—just as deserving of visibility as one of the world’s major languages alongside English, French, Russian, Chinese, or any other.”
In a balanced and sober manner, Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, observed on Modi’s presentation of India’s democratic diversity as an advantage in an unstable world of flux “This is a smart way to differentiate the great Indian democratic experiment with the increasingly controlling, panopticonic world of China — and indeed, to present the constant of India’s democratic traditions, however messy, as its global selling point.
By emphasising this argument, Modi’s remarks today marked a shift to a broader theme from the more narrowly focused investment pitches of the Make in India campaign”, but she reminded the ultra-right ‘Hindutva’ leader that “while democracy’s centrality to India’s story indeed distinguishes the country from so many others, it is also true that India’s great diversity is not always harmonious.
Recent headlines have focused on the shocking cases of cow-protection vigilante violence — anti-Muslim in sentiment. I would also note that violence against women has not ended — just pick up any newspaper in India for daily reports — and that frictions and in some cases violence due to ongoing caste discrimination continue. India has a great story to tell about its against-the-odds universal franchise. But the country has not solved its many domestic tensions.”
“Foreign policy cannot be an island of excellence in a political cesspool,” appropriately inferred Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, former Pak ambassador to India, China and the USA. Although he had in mind Pakistan, the words are appropriate for India under ‘NaMo’ when foreign policy in applications was afflicted by whims and fancies. Modi is openly pro-Israel unlike any Congress prime minister.
The tilt towards Israel was precipitated when India had the first non-Congress PM, Morarji Desai, a Gujarati like Modi, although Morarji was groomed as a political being in Congress, very much unlike Modi, who has for decades been immersed in saffron ideology. Small wonder, in four years under NaMo rule Israel’s weapons exports to India increased along a steady linear path, alongside trade and technology transfers between the two nations.
In sync with the pro-Israeli swing, India had been leaning towards Trumpism. Modi’s subservient attitude towards the US President Donald Trump is detrimental to India’s tradition of independent foreign policy.
Qazi, a peacenik, reminded his compatriots but unwittingly all well-meaning political beings of the subcontinent that ‘the degenerate Trump is not an American aberration. He is an American reality. His baleful impact on relations with Pakistan is the American policy.”
The worst casualty of the present government is transparency and this is applicable in foreign policy practices too. The federal government trampled the obligations under the RTI Act by refusing to comply with the Central Information Commission’s order to disclose the names of the government and private individuals who had accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi on foreign tours from 2014-15 onwards.
A resident of Assam, Karabi Das wanted information from the Ministry of External Affairs under RTI on the expenditure of PM’s foreign trips from 2015-2017, as also details of non-government individuals who accompanied him on these trips.
The MEA resorted to delaying tactic and partial compliance. On 6 October 2017, Das approached the CIC RK Mathur, who directed the MEA to make available the list of non-government individuals (not concerned with security) who travelled with the PM at the government’s expense. The MEA refused to reply under the cloak of ‘secrecy.
It wrote, “The information sought is extremely sensitive. If this information is disclosed, it will have an impact on India’s sovereignty and integrity as also on the country’s security, and strategic, scientific and economic interests. Because of this, a person’s life and physical security can be put in danger.
Therefore, this information cannot be disclosed under Section 8 (1)(a) and (c) of the RTI Act, 2005. On a foreign tour, PMO officials, security agencies, foreign ministry officials and media persons usually accompany the prime minister. These officers are selected on the basis of requirements of the foreign tour. The work of these officers for the prime minister is confidential, which is why this information is sensitive.”
Modi poses as a showbiz batsman who consistently fails to make good scores. Indeed four and a half years on, he’s put far too few runs on the board, trailing far behind the Chinese President Xi Jinping. The NaMo technique is fatally flawed, especially in external area. Nonetheless, Narendra Modi fits into the degrading transition of the game from ‘glorious uncertainty’ to brazenly speculative twenty-twenty savagery.
But that savagery has cost India Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and even the genteel Bhutan is mighty upset. The old Onida advertisement might as well be tweaked to read: Neighbours’ Enemy, Himself’s Pride! And perhaps no Indian premier in history has gone about saying: “Heads you win, tails I lose”!