OPINION: Challenges sans frontiers

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) - The Pakistani missile firing on 23 May ~ the day India’s election results were declared ~was a rude reminder that India lives in an increasingly troubled neighbourhood: hence, the necessity for a professional foreign policy and strategic inputs in the daily task of governance for the new leadership.

The return of the NDA government, powered by a ringing electoral verdict in support of the personal leadership of Prime Minister Modi, signifies a certain continuation of the policies of Modi Government 1. 0. Yet, the present Government 2. 0 is also marked by several important differences from its previous incarnation.

The strong endorsement has enabled a decisive imprimatur of the Prime Minister’s personality in the shaping of the new government and his preferred approach in the formulation of internal and external policies. It has been one of proactive, innovative thinking and of willingness to take risks. For sure, the approach remains one of implementing appropriate government policies to suit the ongoing election cycle covering several key states in the coming months.

But, the complexity of challenges is recognised in the constitution of the top tier of the new government. The key ministers, heading Home affairs, defence, external affairs, and finance, reflect the Prime Minister’s personal trust in them to smoothly steer the ship of state in the current complex times where the internal and the external challenges represent a continuum that is difficult to disaggregate.

With a strong public endorsement, there is the imperative necessity for having hands-on ministerial heads. Reappointment of the incumbent NSA, with Cabinet status, strengthens this core team. The induction of Dr S. Jaishankar, a non-political former diplomat of superb professional credentials, as a key member of the Cabinet and of the Cabinet Committee on Security, is historically unprecedented.

It reflects both the Prime Minister’s preference for direct personal diplomatic engagements and his need for constant professional inputs in addressing the country’s challenges most of which have serious external dimension. Given the constantly evolving nature of summit diplomacy, the Prime Minister has chosen the practice followed by several major powers, like the US, Russia, and China, where the foreign ministers are directly involved in shaping the agenda and preparations for these summit meetings.

The new ministerial appointment addresses this access issue in foreign capitals, in terms of protocol, and lends greater weight to India’s global diplomacy. With India’s increasingly important global role, the world leaders’ response demonstrates their recognition of the significance of the emergence of a strong, stable leadership in Prime Minister Modi; this is in contrast with earlier occasions when the electoral verdict has not been as decisive as this time.

The response of different world leaders also mirrors their own respective perceptions of India’s role in the world today. Amongst the first to greet Mr Modi was the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, whereas, in 2014, it was the Chinese Prime Minister, Le Keqiang, who had made the call. This demonstrates keenness on the part of the Chinese leader to carry forward the Wuhan understanding, to put the Doklam stand-off behind them, and to favourably consider another Wuhan-like summit in Varanasi later in the year.

The Japanese Prime Minister, Abe Shinzo, also placed an early congratulatory call to reaffirm commitment to further strengthen India-Japan relations. There was also a personal phone call from the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to reaffirm strengthening bilateral relations and their personal friendship. President Donald Trump tweeted, “great things are in store for the USIndia relationship”, which he followed by a personal phone call to convey in a meeting at the G 20 summit in Osaka (28-29 June).

Russian President, Vladimir Putin also called him, on 23 May itself, with a reaffirmation of close India- Russia relations. There were similar phone calls and congratulatory messages from other heads of state/government in the neighbourhood and beyond. These were expressions of goodwill and of the desire, at the highest level, to further strengthen relations with India. The only exception, however, was Pakistan.

On the day of the election results, it tested a medium-range nuclear-capable missile, pre-determining, as it were, that the already fraught bilateral relations would not get off to a propitious start. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, tweeted on the same day and followed it up with a phone call expressing goodwill in the expected phraseology to which Prime Minister Modi responded by reiterating that “creating trust and environment free of violence and terrorism” were essential for peace, progress and prosperity.

Nevertheless, the negative optics of a missile being tested at the same time would not be missed by any government. The Pakistani press was also full of negative reports during and after the elections, unwilling to discount the charged electoral rhetoric not unusual in the highly competitive Indian elections. The Pakistani missile firing, on 23 May, was a rude reminder that India lives in an increasingly troubled neighbourhood: hence, the necessity for a professional foreign policy and strategic inputs in the daily task of governance for the new leadership.

Although, there was a brief exchange of greetings ~ but, no formal or informal meeting ~ between the Indian and the Pakistani foreign ministers during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting in Bishkek on 22 May, there is little prospect of any dialogue process presently. On the other hand, with the establishment of the new ‘red lines’ with Pakistan, as exemplified in Balakot, considerable diplomatic skills and strategic judgment would need to be marshalled in managing both the escalation and the de-escalation of the next crisis, should that arise following some other provocation.

During the Balakot crisis, nuclear weapons capability was invoked on both sides. Such possibilities cannot be ruled out in the future, especially as some terrorist elements would have a definite interest in bringing them about. Although one need not exaggerate, our security forces would have taken note of the recent ISIS announcement of a Hind wilayat.

As the India-Pakistan border remains ‘live’ and there is presence of foreign terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, a major challenge to regional security looms due to growing state fragility ~ and, possible state collapse ~ in Afghanistan where the present government is weakened due to military pressure from the Taliban who are emboldened by the keenness of the US to withdraw its forces, as well as NATO’s at an early date.

The presence of Islamist terrorist groups, including those returning from the Syrian theatre, is likely to expand in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asian countries. These developments can be expected to inject greater volatility in the region, affecting India as well. The recent bombings in Sri Lanka bring the ISIS-linked terror closer home due to protracted institutional disarray in that country.

The Maldives are experiencing endemic radicalisation too. Similar Indian concerns apply in relations with Myanmar and Bangladesh with the added complication of additional insurgent groups. Beyond the immediate neighbourhood, there are growing concerns about the impact of regional tensions on India’s vital stakes. The possibility of conflict in the Gulf region, hosting 6 million Indian expatriates and its major energy suppliers, is a major foreign policy and security challenge; outbreak of military conflict or instability there will have a spillover effect in South Asia, especially in an already volatile Afghanistan.

The tensions are rising in South China Sea region as well and in the Taiwan Straits; any adverse developments there will affect a whole swathe of India’s vital relationships, including South-east Asian countries, Japan, China and the US. Any volatility in the Indian Ocean region will affect India’s strategic interests and ‘good order at sea’. The Chinese media have welcomed Prime Minister Modi’s strengthened position expecting continuation of India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ under Modi Government 1.0.

There is keenness to cultivate relations with India due to heavy international, especially US, pressure due to Chinese trade and intellectual property practices, potential technology lead, aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, inadequate cooperation over North Korea, and larger military rivalry. Whilst the US sees India as an important partner in applying this pressure on China, it is exerting pressure on India as well under threat of unilateral sanctions over trade, purchase of oil from Iran and Venezuela, and weapons purchases from Russia.

Russian President took a calculated political risk in conferring the highest national honour on the Prime Minister on the eve of Indian elections, yet there are divergent political interests between them in respect of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the general ‘pro-US orientation’ in Indian foreign policy. In the Gulf region, India’s relations are substantial with Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Iran; UAE’s conferring on Prime Minister its highest civilian honour before the elections was also an important political signal.

The invitation to the heads of state/government of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), the Kyrgyz President as the current chair of SCO, and the Mauritius Prime Minister was the first indication of the direction of the foreign policy of Modi Government 2.0.

The invitation to BIMSTEC leaders, instead of those from the SAARC, meant the exclusion of Pakistan which, however, did not amount to a snub. Besides signalling that regional integration would not be hostage to Pakistani whims, it also signalled that door for dialogue with Pakistan or for expanding cooperation within the SAARC framework has not been closed shut.

(The writer is a former Ambassador and author of Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century. He can be reached at mr_yogendra_kumar@hotmail.com)

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