August 24, 2014

PM Modi is building a more connected India


By KANWAL SIBAL
PUBLISHED: 21:09 GMT, 11 August 2014 | UPDATED: 21:09 GMT, 11 August 2014
 
If Modi has not revealed his hand yet on domestic issues and his silence on rising controversies is puzzling and disappointing many, his personal imprint on our foreign policy is already visible. 

His sporadic pronouncements on foreign policy during his campaign did not offer any clear idea of how he intended to handle that responsibility. As Chief Minister, his exposure to external relations was limited to visits to a few countries to primarily discuss investment matters.

Yet, it is in the foreign policy area where his direct experience has been the least that his impact so far has been the most.  Modi obviously felt he could control the risks associated with immediately engaging Nawaz Sharif without India's
minimum expectations for dialogue resumption being met.
 
Modi obviously felt he could control the risks associated with immediately engaging Nawaz Sharif without India's minimum expectations for dialogue resumption being met.

Innovation

In internal matters, the lack of innovative breaks so far is being ascribed to bureaucratic constraints. This seems less true of foreign policy where the prime minister is taking initiatives and developing an agenda marked by his own thinking and personality. 

This is manifest most in our neighbourhood, where the out-of-the-box decision to invite all SAARC countries (and Mauritius) to the swearing-in ceremony was clearly a political initiative of which Modi took indirect ownership subsequently by personally acclaiming its success.

The thought may have been that BJP's dramatic election victory had set the stage for India to play a more dynamic role even beyond its borders, and that immediate neighbours could be invited to join in celebrating the party's triumph. 
More importantly, the message would be that they had nothing to fear from Modi's victory in the context of his "Hindu nationalist" credentials, his tough personality, 2002 and his uneasy equation with the muslim community.
Modi obviously felt he could control the risks associated with immediately engaging Nawaz Sharif without India's minimum expectations for dialogue resumption being met. 
  
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Pakistan has not acted against the jihadi groups, it has deliberately stung India by not curbing Hafiz Saeed, and has not shown any tangible progress on trying those responsible for the Mumbai carnage. 

Even on the MFN issue Nawaz Sharif has so far prevaricated. Modi is obviously free of any illusions about Pakistan, whose enduring hostility he has experienced also in Gujarat by way of terror attacks.

He probably thinks that with his strong political mandate he is in a position to impress on Pakistan that its future would be more secure in a connected South Asia that fosters prosperity benefiting all. 

Pakistan's responsiveness to such thinking remains highly doubtful. Nawaz Sharif could well calculate that the primacy Modi gives to the development agenda provided a leverage to extract some concessions from him in return for moving forward. 
Accordingly, he must continue to press his self-serving demands, maintain the terrorist threat, seek Indian "generosity" to strengthen his hands vis a vis his own military, and use others to take him at face value, which Kerry and Hagel have done during their visits. 

Unresponsive

The Pakistani political class – including the moderates – has convinced itself that India has been stubbornly unresponsive to the many friendly overtures by Pakistani leaders towards India and has remained unyielding on culling the "low hanging fruit" of Siachen and Sir Creek, not to mention our robbing Pakistan of its water. 
Nawaz Sharif would expect to be "rewarded" for coming to Delhi for the swearing-in by defying the Pakistani military and religious groups, failing which Pakistani grievances against India will increase by one more. 
The forthcoming Foreign Secretary-level dialogue, followed by the expected Modi-Sharif meet on the margins of the UNGA in September, will reveal if these realities have changed. 
To underline the new government's priority attention to neighbours, Bhutan was chosen for the first prime ministerial visit. This gesture was politically sagacious, both to woo the Bhutanese people now enjoying more democratic rights, and to handle the China factor. 

Connectivity

Nepal's exaggerated, self-defeating nationalist prickliness and the obsession to trump us as much as possible with the Chinese card has been a decades-old challenge. 

That no Indian prime minister visited Nepal for 17 years is both a commentary on our political neglect of the country and Nepal's doggedness in exploiting the irritants in our ties to create an atmosphere in which, for instance, water resources cooperation that could have brought immense benefits to the Nepalese economy and created bonds of interdependence has been thwarted.

Modi's visit to Nepal has been remarkable for his mastery over vocabulary and sentiment that marked his extempore speech to its parliamentarians. He has touched the right chords and has invested in the future, to the extent sentiments and expressions of goodwill have diplomatic durability. 
The External Affairs Minister's (EAM) earlier visit to Bangladesh launched the government's overtures to our neighbours, with Sri Lanka yet to be engaged in Colombo, an exercise complicated by the highly parochial nature of Tamil Nadu politics. 
Connectivity seems to be the buzzword in government's regional policies, as is evident from EAM's remarks at the ASEAN ministerial meeting in Myanmar. Modi's emphasis on SAARC also stresses increased connectivity to boost regional economic ties to all round advantage. 

Our imaginative proposal to launch a SAARC satellite fits into this paradigm. Unfortunately, with Pakistan still reluctant to normalise trade relations with India, connectivity between India and Afghanistan and beyond to Central Asia will not easily materialise and SAARC will therefore remain stunted. 

Indian interests would be better served by a more decisive eastward focus, with BIMSTEC receiving priority attention. If the accommodating posture towards our neighbours is one reality and there is satisfaction that this has received favourable international comment, the other is the determination to protect India's interest despite threats of isolation and adverse reaction by powerful countries, as happened at the recent WTO negotiations at Geneva.
This has lessons for those who are sizing up the Modi government. 
The writer is a former Foreign Secretary


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