From Backbencher to Decision Maker

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The Howdy Modi event created a strong wave in America. The mutual interests and joint ventures moved at new heights

The year 2019 was very important in terms of Foreign Policy. A year is a very short span to weigh major successes and failures in the domain of foreign policy, but there are certain indicators, which proved the effectiveness of strong diplomatic ventures under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi. World politics had seen many changes. India faced the general elections in which issues of foreign policy predominantly occupied the electoral landscape in 2019. The first indicator of success could be mentioned in Britain. India is happy that Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party leader, did not win the election. The Labour Party hostility against India is well known. At its annual conference in Brighton in September, the Labour Party had approved a resolution criticising India’s decision to change the constitutional position of Kashmir, expressing support for the Kashmiri “right to self-determination” and calling for “international intervention” and “mediation” between Delhi and Islamabad. Indian Diaspora, which is very strong in Britain, raised this issue. Indian community rejected labour love and moved towards the conservative side. Their tilt proved a jolt for the Labour Party. Boris Johnson, who was facing the heat from Labour, grabbed the opportunity to tap into the Indian Diaspora’s resentment against Labour. This was not merely a success of Indian diplomacy but also reinforced the power of Indian Diaspora in a foreign land.
The second major success of the year is India’s strong presence in Islamic states. In March 2019, at OIC Ministerial meeting India was invited as a special guest. None of the resolutions which were passed in the meeting was against India. OIC used to be a headache for Indian diplomacy a decade earlier. Now the same organisation is willing to shed of Pakistan’s anti-India agenda. The annual OIC meet was held in Malaysia and Pakistan remained absent. That showed India’s strong presence in Islamic states.
The recent continuous efforts to connect with Islamic countries especially with the Gulf continued. Recently India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar visited Oman. India and Oman signed a Maritime Transport Agreement. The pact, the first with any Gulf country, enables India to expand its footprint in the western Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and East Africa. Oman is strategically located which could help India to connect with two different continents Africa and Europe. A few months ago, PM Modi visited Saudi Arabia. It was a path-breaking event. He strongly endorsed the young crown’s religious and social agenda for the country. Saudi’s change of mind will have tangible impacts on the Indian subcontinent. Earlier it used to be a close ally of Pakistan and supported Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir. For a modern and moderate Arabia will reinforce similar trends in the Subcontinent.
The third major achievement of the year was India-Russia relations. Russia has been very keen to emerge as a leading player in the Indian subcontinent. C. Raja Mohan, strategic thinker explained the trends. “The Russian and the Chinese are conducting a trilateral naval exercise with South Africa in the strategic waters off the Cape of Good Hope. This is the first time that the three countries (India’s partners in the BRICS forum along with Brazil) are doing such a joint exercise. The exercise reflects the growing weight of China and Russia in South Africa’s security calculus and Pretoria’s growing political distance from the West. Meanwhile, Iran has said that it plans to hold joint naval drills with Russia and China in the turbulent waters of the Persian Gulf.”
The fourth is India-America relations. There has been an upswing in terms of bilateral ties between the two countries. The Howdy Modi event created a strong wave in America. The mutual interests and joint ventures moved to new heights.
Fifth, Indian Diaspora has expanded. It is rare that an American president joins a foreign leader in addressing a Diaspora event. Raja Mohan succinctly explained the importance of Indian Diaspora. “It is based on the recognition that a large and very successful Diaspora has widened India’s footprint and can contribute to the achievement of India’s domestic and international goals. The Indian Diaspora (including non-resident Indians and persons of Indian origin) is estimated to be more than 30 million and growing. Its substantive concentration is in the Anglo-American world, the Gulf and the former colonies of the British Empire. Its presence is growing beyond these traditional areas. So has its political and economic influence in the host nations.”

The Challenges

The success also comes with challenges. The US-India relations are a diplomatic strength at the same time unpredictable approach of US President Trump is a challenge. One of the great nuisances is a trade dispute with America. The trade agreement with the US is not just about immediate give and take between Modi and Trump. A new trade agreement must be about preparing India for profound changes in the global economic order. The US as a global power has foreign policy priorities that differ from ours. India’s challenge is to successfully manage an unequal relationship. The advent of Donald Trump has made the management even more difficult. He is mercurial.
The second challenge is Chinese overstepping in Nepal and Nepal’s tilt towards China. Oli’s government aims to keep Nepal’s relationship with China independent of the one it shares with India. President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Kathmandu helped focus on the changing dynamic between India, China and Nepal. The third Challenge is Afghanistan. The Doha peace talks on Afghanistan, initiated by the US with the Afghanistan government excluded, and the possible restoration of a Taliban government in Kabul, are a worrying prospect for India. Ghani has won the presidential election for the second time. The US-Taliban talks generate a trap for India. Taliban forces will allow Pakistan to dismantle Indian presence in Afghanistan. Especially, after fundamental changes which were brought in Jammu-Kashmir by the Indian government will face accumulative onslaughts by Taliban and Pakistan. President Trump’s efforts to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, driven by his electoral compulsions, illustrate the transactional nature of American diplomacy. India will be facing an acute challenge in Afghanistan.
The fourth challenge is India’s neighbourhood. Sri Lanka marks the return of Rajapaksa brothers to power and threatens to take Sri Lanka back to the “authoritarian family rule” that it had witnessed under former president Mahinda Rajapaksa between 2005 and 2015. Most constitutional institutions, including the office of the chief justice of the country, were under pressure during the previous Rajapaksa regime and key positions were occupied by family members. But political changes in the neighbours are not in the hands of India. Only the strength of India will deter them from adopting anti-India polices.
Neither India is driven by US impact nor is it willing the brunt of China. It is doing what it suits the interests of its own. Wuhan spirit of China is further progressed in Chennai meet. It is keeping the political differences under control. The Howdy sentiments did not blind India to be swayed by American power. The internal policies change will not have the shadow on its neighbours especially in the context of the NRC and Citizenship Amendment Act. Bangladesh is the lynchpin of India’s Look Act Policy and the development of India’ north-eastern states heavily depend on Bangladesh cooperation. Indian diplomatic brigades will have huge challenges for the next year. The most important is to keep Bangladesh in good tune after these fundamental changes. At the same time, India has to look for the opportunity to initiate the stalled dialogue with the Taliban despite knowing its track records. Indian diplomacy will have to reach out to the Muslim countries and assure them of the sanctity of Indian secularism.
(The writer is an Associate Prof. of Political Science at MMH Collage, Ghaziabad)