India and its Neighbourhood

Foreign Policy Challenges for Modi

22 May, 2014    ·   4463

Wasbir Hussain analyses the potential foreign policy challenges for Indian Prime Minister-designate, Narendra Modi, in the country's immediate neighbourhood

Wasbir Hussain
Wasbir Hussain
Visiting Fellow
The massive mandate that Indian Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi has managed to secure for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is certainly a verdict against the status quo in India. The buoyant stock market demonstrated the confidence of the business class over his promises regarding the economy. And, the speed with which world leaders, including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina congratulated him meant they were eager to engage with his government. With the leash of coalition politics gone, Modi is expected to pursue a more proactive foreign policy, maybe one driven by economy. In fact, he has demonstrated his intent by extending invitations to the heads of states and governments of the SAARC countries for his swearing-in ceremony on May 26.

The US obviously had an inkling of the verdict weeks ago, and had therefore dispatched its then Ambassador to New Delhi, Nancy Powell, to call on him and smoothen ruffled feathers, especially over the visa row. The US President Barack Obama too spoke with Modi soon after the results saying he was looking forward to working closely with him.  

However, one must realise that the key to India’s emergence as a regional and global power lies in New Delhi’s ability to calibrate a policy that succeeds in improving relations with its immediate neighbours—particularly, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China. If Modi is to rewrite the India story by reviving the economy and accelerating the growth rate, his government will have to make sure India’s neighbourhood is politically stable and economically sound. Only a stable neighbourhood can make India expand its footprint beyond the sub-continent and let it pursue its big power ambitions.

What could Modi’s policy towards Pakistan be? 
Over the course of the election process, he stated that there can be no talks amid the din of gunfire and bomb explosions. Many in Pakistan, rightly or otherwise, sought to interpret this as a pre-condition set by Modi. The challenges before Modi are manifold. First, he has to demonstrate that he is a tough leader who will not let India be regarded as a soft power by anyone. Second, he has to prove that he has the foresight and the statesmanship to actually take India-Pakistan relations beyond what his predecessor Atal Behari Vajpayee could achieve.

Most importantly, if Modi is to prove he is different, he has to deal with the ‘K’ word, and try and settle the Kashmir issue; and not just retain the status quo. The key question here is whether Modi will be able to enjoy the trust and cooperation of the stakeholders in Jammu & Kashmir – particularly after the BJP, in its 2014, election manifesto stated that it would like to revoke Article 370 that gives special status to the state. The silver lining is that Pakistanis have expressed hope about a thaw in the long-fraught ties between the two neighbours under Modi. Sharif has already invited Modi to visit Pakistan and Islamabad has been quick to talk about granting India the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status to set the ball rolling. 

The tragedy of the Manmohan Singh era in Indian diplomacy has been its failure to forge strong ties with smaller neighbours such as Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi economy is not really buoyant, although Dhaka talks about a good growth rate, and, therefore, trade and business is important for the country. The balance of trade is heavily tilted against Bangladesh, and until recently, New Delhi did not do much to set in motion measures to reverse the trend. 

Modi, in the course of his campaign did refer to Bangladesh in not so pleasant terms. He stated that after his government takes over, Bangladeshis will have to leave India. This is not a controversial remark because Modi was referring to illegal Bangladeshi immigrants and most parties and groups in Border States like Assam want illegal immigrants from that country to be detected and deported. 

This had been a good election-time rhetoric, but Modi’s biggest challenge will be to detect illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who have to be confirmed as illegal aliens by the due process of law. With Dhaka firm in its stand that its citizens have not illegally migrated to India, dealing with the issue will be difficult. However, such sensitive issues can be dealt with in a more comfortable manner if ties between the two nations improve with a good measure of trust. 

China is another country that Modi referred to, rather aggressively, during his campaign in Arunachal Pradesh, the  Indian state that Beijing has set its eyes on. He had actually warned China to shed its “mindset of expansionism” and pledged to “protect my country.” In fact, India’s China challenge will continue even under Modi, and dealing with Beijing will require more engagement in diverse fields; and, of course, a strong deterrence. Going by Modi’s ‘vikas’ or development mantra, his immediate challenge along the Chinese frontier will be to improve the infrastructure of our armed forces to get a level playing field during critical times. Modi’s China challenge will be to reduce the gap with that country – something that India can actually do. 

Retention of the current status quo cannot achieve any of this and Modi is unlikely to continue with old approaches.