As 2015 comes to an end, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has sprung another surprise with its outreach to Pakistan. The larger trajectory of Indian foreign policy remains robust with an effective team at the helm led by the prime minister himself. India today is projecting a much more robust profile on the global stage than it managed to do over the previous decade. It is the new leadership that has made all the difference.
The Indian government’s biggest success in the realm of foreign policy and national security in the past year has been its ability to keep its interlocutors on tenterhooks. The unpredictability of a nation whose responses had become all too easy to predict over the last few decades is generating a new sense of expectation among its interlocutors. From Pakistan to the United States, from Africa to ASEAN, there is now an expectation that the new dispensation in New Delhi means business and there cannot be business as usual with the Modi government. This sense of drive and purpose is what India had been lacking in the recent past.
The bedrock of a nation’s strength in contemporary global politics remains its economic strength. By putting the Indian story back into reckoning after callous mismanagement by its predecessor, the Modi government has shored up India’s previously dwindling credibility. The fact that it has been able to do this despite an obstructionist opposition is even more remarkable. For all the disruption of the Parliament by the Congress Party, the image of a business-minded Modi government remains intact for the outside world. And that is a testament to adept foreign policy management by the government and the energy and vigor with which the prime minister and his team, led by Sushma Swaraj, have conducted the country’s external affairs. In fact, it is the image of the Congress Party that is getting a beating now even abroad with the perception gaining ground that the party, ever desperate, is looking to shore up its identity as a political entity of any meaning or relevance.
Another success of the Modi government has been a careful nurturing of major power relations and a deft management of an ever-shifting global and regional balance of power in Asia and beyond. The United States today is looking for its next president. The Obama administration is already pulling back, but there is no clear suggestion of who his successor might be as of yet. Hillary Clinton is the most likely nominee of the Democratic Party and the Republicans are still searching for one. This means that there is a political vacuum in Washington which is being exploited by challengers such as China and Russia, with their supposedly strong leaders. In this milieu, the Modi government has managed to carve out a robust relationship with the United States, even as it has stabilized ties with Beijing and Moscow. It is not going to be easy as Russia’s growing closeness to China will have serious implications for India. Nevertheless, New Delhi has so far been successful in conveying its concerns to all three major powers with a degree of confidence which was absent in the past. India’s engagement with Europe too is now more forward-looking and devoid of the unnecessary rhetoric of perpetual inferiority. There is a clear message going out that India will act on its own terms and conditions and can skillfully play the role of a balancer in Asia.
The Modi government’s regional outreach has also made a difference in this regard. In its own neighborhood in the Indo-Pacific, India is now perceived as a credible balancer at a time when China’s maritime assertiveness grown, creating space for Indian diplomacy. New Delhi’s outreach to like-minded states in the region such as Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines, and Malaysia has grown in the past year. Gone is the diffidence of the past when India used to walk on eggshells for fear of offending China. The Modi government wants to enhance its footprint in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East to underscore the distinct advantages that India possesses in comparison to China’s more mercantile approach. The focus is now on delivery of the commitments that India has made to other regions, an area where India lags considerably behind China and other major powers.
Finally, it is in South Asia itself that the Modi government has been facing some criticism over the last few months, with turmoil gripping India-Nepal and India-Pakistan ties. But even in a region as mired in historical grievances as South Asia, India has managed to traverse considerable ground over the last year and a half. India’s ties with Bangladesh today are the best they have been in the past two decades. India has done well by showing magnanimity in resolving its long-pending disputes with Dhaka. Relations with Sri Lanka are also on an upward trajectory under the Sirisena government. Afghanistan has also recognized the folly of ignoring Indian concerns and the two nations are now joining hands in exposing the Pakistani military’s machinations. Additionally, India is now enhancing its security role in Kabul at the invitation of the Ghani government.
Nepal remains a problem, largely because the political elites in the country have not managed to reconcile internal differences. India remains an easy target toward which to channel domestic grievances, and perceptions of overbearing Indian interference have gained ground in the country. There are signs that some sort of reconciliation is beginning to shape up and India can play a role in making that happen. But New Delhi should be wary of playing an overt role in Nepal and let the domestic constituencies resolve their constitutional agenda. Furthermore, the Modi government is ending the year on a high note with its dramatic outreach to Pakistan. After carefully working throughout the year to isolate the Pakistani military globally as the epicenter of terror, New Delhi is now reaching out to the civilian government in Pakistan to ensure that those constituencies which want a long-term regional solution get strengthened.
India today stands on the cusp of a major transformation and Indian leadership will have to remain relevant to these changing times. Eventually, the Modi government’s success will be assessed at the end of its five-year term in 2019, but a year and a half into the Modi era, it is clear that this government is ready to discard old shibboleths and chart a new foreign policy trajectory.