Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed 2015 on the foreign policy front in the same manner that he had started it – with great flourish and finesse. While the beginning of 2015 witnessed the unexpected but highly successful visit of President Barack Obama, the first U.S. president to visit India twice in his tenure and the first as Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day, the last visit saw Modi make a sudden and impromptu goodwill stopover in Lahore for a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. Although the road ahead remains strewn with pitfalls, this brief interaction between the two prime ministers has the potential to radically transform bilateral relations.
It is a good occasion to take stock of Modi’s achievements – and his misfires – in this vital arena during 2015.
Modi set a scorching pace in 2015 by visiting 28 countries and welcoming leaders from 12 countries, including the U.S., Germany, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, and Bhutan.
In continuation of his most significant initiative “Neighborhood First” – launched even before Modi assumed office – relations with Bangladesh witnessed a decisive upswing with ratification by India of the Land Boundary Agreement, something that had been pending for 40 years. Ties with Sri Lanka received a strong push, in large measure due to a change in domestic leadership in that country as a result of presidential elections early in the year with Maithripala Sirisena replacing Mahinda Rajapaksa as president. Modi took this forward by touring Sri Lanka in March 2015, the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 30 years.
In contrast, relations with Nepal and Maldives deteriorated, partly because India got sucked into the vortex that is the domestic politics of these countries. New Delhi could perhaps have adopted a more hands-on approach to developments in Nepal in the final stages of the latter’s adoption of its Constitution, which might have led to a different outcome – one more in tune with both bilateral ties and the interests of Nepal itself.
Modi has been remarkably successful in establishing a close nexus between his country’s foreign policy and domestic transformation. He has sought to attract foreign capital and technology while opening foreign markets for Indian products. He has aggressively marketed his government’s flagship programs like Make in India, Digital India, Smart Cities, Clean Ganga, Swachh Bharat, and Skill India.
Another huge success experienced this year was the sharp upsurge in ties with the U.S., elevating the strategic partnership to unprecedented levels. The personal rapport established by Modi with Obama and other world leaders like Shinzo Abe and Angela Merkel significantly advanced India’s interests and enhanced India’s profile.
The inking of the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement as well as the decision to construct the high-speed rail line with an outlay of $15 billion during Abe’s recent visit has catapulted the relationship with Japan from what had been a purely economic one to a vital strategic partnership. The civil nuclear agreement with Australia is also a big accomplishment.
India’s expanding relations with ASEAN and East Asia under Modi’s “Act East Policy” are yielding rich dividends. particularly as the centre of gravity of the world economy shifts towards Asia. Modi’s productive visits to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore have helped in this regard.
China continues to be a challenge that India will have to contend with in the coming years. China’s growing political, military and economic prowess make it increasingly assertive in areas where India’s interests are involved. Beijing’s support for Pakistan, notably with the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that crosses territory claimed by India, has led to a further straining of ties. Modi has emphasized that the bilateral relationship will not reach its full potential if India’s core sensitivities are not respected.
In another remarkable accomplishment, Modi has been able to energize and enthuse the Indian diaspora in each of the countries he has visited. He has been greeted wildly and passionately. India’s overseas communities are increasingly prosperous and have emerged as a significant factor in the domestic politics of several countries, including the U.S., Canada, U.K., and others.
Some other major successes Modi has notched during the past twelve months include hosting the Africa Summit, the largest diplomatic gathering ever in India, with the participation of 41 African leaders; decision by the UN to celebrate June 21 every year as “International Yoga Day”; his short but path-breaking visit to Kabul; robust engagement at the Paris Climate Change Summit and Nairobi WTO Ministerial, notwithstanding strident opposition from developed countries; his tour of all five Central Asian states, increasingly important in strategic, economic and energy terms in recent years; his visits to Sri Lanka, Mauritius and Seychelles, the first by an Indian prime minister in 30 years as part of his ‘‘sagar yatra’’; his meeting with the leaders of Fiji and Pacific Island nations; and the visit by leaders of Pacific Island countries to India to further solidify relations.
Modi has significantly raised the pitch on India’s justified demand that it become a permanent member of the UN Security Council during the 70th anniversary of its establishment. Still, it is unrealistic to expect that a final decision on expanding the Security Council will be taken anytime soon.
One significant partnership that has so far not received sufficient attention and has tended to stagnate is with Russia. Russia is a time-tested friend to India and should once again become the key pillar of India’s foreign policy. Modi’s recent two-day visit and his interaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin have given a strong fillip to the ‘‘special and privileged strategic partnership’’ in areas of defense procurement and indigenization, nuclear energy, hydrocarbon prospecting, trade and economic ties.
Significant advances have been made in relations with several strategic partners and progress registered in many vital and critical areas. Of course, challenges abound in dealing effectively with neighbors including Pakistan, China, Nepal, and Maldives, as well as on issues such as terrorism and climate change. Overall, though, the Modi government deserves an A for its performance in the area of foreign policy.
Ashok Sajjanhar is a career diplomat who has served as Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, as also as Secretary/Principal Executive Officer of the National Foundation for Communal Harmony, an autonomous organization with the Ministry of Home Affairs. He has held several significant positions in Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow, Brussels, Geneva, Bangkok, Tehran and Dhaka.