Dr. Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation

The Foreign Policy Swerve

By Praful Shankar

It may seem strange now but in the run-up to the 2014 General Election, most of the commentaries which surrounded the candidacy of Narendra Modi for Prime Minister-ship always contained a mention of Foreign Policy inlists of his supposed weaknesses. Whatever reason the commentators may have had to do so, it was apparent that they had chosen to ignore how the then Gujarat Chief Minister had deftly used the economic strengths of his home state in order to bolster his credentials across the globe even when the New Delhi establishment continued to cast him as a pariah.Even so, any doubts people may have had regarding the Prime Minister’s foreign policy credentials were swiftly dismissed as early as his swearing-in ceremony, when he – out of the blue- extended invitations to all the heads of the SAARC nations, setting the tone for a foreign policy which has since been bold, dynamic and imaginative. Even during instances when the mechanics of the situation have been difficult (as with Pakistan and China), the Modi government has not shied away from deviating from the protocol laden, ‘safety first’ approaches of previous dispensations.

Nevertheless, if one were to analyze the extent of shifts effected by the Modi government from past foreign policy templates, the events of the last month would still display a considerably larger deviation than before.

Shortly before his Independence Day address, the Prime Minister made his first reference to Balochistan at an all-party meeting to discuss the unrest in Kashmir. He followed it up with a very pointed mention of Balochistan again, this time combined with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan, during his speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15.Recently, during the G20 Summit in China, he referenced Pakistan again, tersely mentioning that a ‘single nation’ spreading terror in South Asia.

The foreign policy nonconformities have not been limited to just Pakistan and Kashmir. Over the past week or so, there have also been indications (unconfirmed) that the Prime Minister might choose not to attend the next NAM summit in Venezuela.

Now, as any observer of Indian politics and diplomacy would tell you, these changes in orientation are much more than significant. Observing a ‘maunvradh’ on PoK and Balochistan while kowtowing to venerated Nehruvian institutions –global and local – have been Lakshmanrekhas for India’s foreign policy establishment. Not many have thought of venturing outside it and those who dared to think of doing so have been quickly brought into line by New Delhi’s status-quo industry. This is the likely reason than the very minute the Prime Minister’s diplomacy shifts became apparent, the airwaves and internet were floodedwith a barrage of doomsday opinion pieces and newsroom lectures.

Now, when the dust from the cacophony has settled, it would be worth analyzing what this dramatic foreign policy swerve says about the intent of the Modi administration and the man at the center of it all.

First, the Prime Ministerhas indicated that his resolve is to keep India’s diplomatic policies in alignment with the nation’sstrategic interestsand to unburden it from, often self-imposed, internal and historic limitations.

He has given numerous indications of this intention in the past as well. Over the course of the past two and a half years, PM Modi has stepped up engagements with nations like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – taking stances which were in alignment with the broader national interest while ignoring or, as in the case of the landmark Teesta Agreement, winning over dissenting voices which had emerged from regional players.He has extended this approach to international engagements as well – inking agreements while visiting Saudi Arabia, Iran and the US in quick succession, despite the high levels of mistrust which exist amongst the three countries.

His junking of the Indian reticence in raising Balochistan and the apparent disenchantment with the NAM summit can be seen as a solidification of this approach. In the case of the latter, if India is to emerge from the group of ‘middle powers’ into a global leader, a continued commitment to the NAM as a group could work as a limiting factor.

In the case of the former, the struggle of the Baloch people has always been a sore point for Pakistan, which India’s has always resisted from using for a host of – some legitimate – reasons. However, after decades of being at the receiving end of Pakistan’s persistent efforts to internationalize Kashmir and the recent glorification of the terrorist, Burhan Wani, by the Pakistani establishment, the Baloch card is one which India has more than enough reasons to put on the table. Not only does it put Pakistan on the defensive in terms of human rights abuses but it also raises memories of one of Pakistan’s most humiliating moments in history – when Indian forces broke the nation into two in 1971. And by coupling it with PoK, PM Modi has sent out a message that even the ‘LoC as an unofficial border’ stances of previous dispensations are not ones that he holds to be sacrosanct.

The second message is more Pakistan-centric – that India sees no value in investing in a united and stable Pakistan if the sentiment is not reciprocated towards India from the other side.

The Indian public has always been tuned into the fact that Pakistan – a rogue nation which knowingly orchestrated a sinister destabilization of the region – has always gotten away with less than its fair share of criticism for its recklessactions. However, the stranglehold of the ‘Nehruvian consensus’ on the foreign policy establishment and the disproportionate influence of the ‘peace dove’ glitterati has ensured that, despite contrary popular sentiments, Indian governments were always cajoled into taking a more conciliatory stand towards Pakistan.

During the UPA decade, with the initiation of the farcical ‘Track II’ diplomatic initiatives, the Indian establishment had also been conned into believing that it should assume the responsibility of being a stakeholder increating a strong and stable Pakistan.

There has been ample evidence in recent years that Pakistan’s internal churnings have taken a life of its own – with the Islamist groups nurtured by the Pakistani establishment going increasingly out of the control of their former masters. With most of its attention and resources concentrated on containing the Islamist threats from within, the last thing the Pakistani government and military need is a more vigorous Baloch rebellion. An Indian intervention on Balochistan – even at a diplomatic level – has the potential to put Pakistan under tremendous pressure. So far, India’s ‘elder statesman’ disposition had stopped it from exploring the Baloch option – perhaps reasoning that a crumbling Pakistan would only serve to weaken the hands of the Pakistani moderates and consequently, the peace process.

By highlighting the cause of the Baloch people, the PM has signaledthat the Indian government isn’t willing to invest its political and diplomatic capital into the peace process unless Pakistan begins to play by the rules and respects India’s territorial integrity. Additionally, the Prime Ministeralso seems to have sent out a clear hintthat he doubts the very credibility of the so-called Pakistani moderates. And justifiably so – for too long has Pakistan used the mirage of its moderates to buy time for its fundamentalists (often the two are one and the same).

Third and perhaps most importantly, by attaching himself toa risky stand on an issue with high visibility at the international level, the Prime Minister has reaffirmed, to both his nation and the world,his confidence in India’s stature as a major global player.

An unstated reason why previous Indian dispensations have resisted taking the Baloch route and stuck to pre-existing diplomatic templates has been the apprehension of the capability to handle the consequent global fallout. This has been the result of consecutive decades of India’s foreign policy establishment choosing to position India as a leading middle power in the global firmament over the pursuit ofa route to the global high-table.

By taking on Pakistani provocations on the front-foot, the Prime Minister has declared that these are rules which India will not play by anymore.

With the economies of most major western nations still suffering from the after-effects of the 2008 crash and China’s growth slowing down, the world is invested in the India story much more than ever before. The economic opportunities the nation offers combined with its demographic and democratic dividend has presented India with the opportunity to have a more assertive foreign policy.

This image of India as a burgeoning superpower is in sharp contrast to that of Pakistan as a terror hub and global nuisance which even the US President has admitted to having sleepless nights about. Additionally, with America and most European powers also facing internal security threats due to radical Islam, their patience with one of the chief enablers of the global jihadist movement is as low as it’s ever been in modern history.

With the Baloch play, India has effectively told Pakistan that it is confident of managing any diplomatic consequence that may arise on strength of India’s growing importance to the global community. In effect, this was also a missiveto the errant neighbor conveying that fact that India does not consider Pakistan to be in its league anymore.

Early signs are that this is a turn of events which Pakistan had not considered to be possible. Consequently, the reactions from Islamabad have neither been measured nor strategic but reactionary. News of Nawaz Sharif deputing 22 envoys to carry Pakistan’s message around the world must have had the exact opposite effect he would have desired in New Delhi.

While none can discount the chances of more Pakistani adventurism in the future, the fact remains that Pakistan will be, perhaps for the first time, wary of an unconventional Indian response.

When all is said and done, it is this addition of a dose of unpredictability into how India conducts its international relationswhich has the potential to be one of the Modi government’s most important contributions to India’s foreign policy.