The following article originally appeared in The Wire on May 26, 2016. An excerpt is below. The full text can be accessed here.
Two years ago today, Narendra Modi took the oath of office as India’s 14th prime minister. Among his first decisions as head of government – in fact, it was set in motion even before the formal start of his tenure – was an unconventional act of diplomacy: inviting eight foreign leaders of neighbouring countries to attend his inauguration. While many commentators claimed before his election that Modi would be a nationalist hardliner, a foreign affairs novice, or simply more of the same on external affairs, the prime minister instead proved more active and (perhaps less surprisingly) more pragmatic than many had expected. In two years, Modi has displayed an instinctive understanding of power in the conduct of world affairs, and he has also benefited from being less politically hamstrung than his predecessor Manmohan Singh, with whose worldview he in fact shares much in common.
A highlight of Modi’s first year was his outreach to the United States. In September 2014, Washington rolled out the red carpet for a leader it had once publicly shunned, and Modi reciprocated by inviting Barack Obama to India’s Republic Day celebrations, a first for a U.S. president. But beyond normalising and enhancing relations with the US, Modi’s international priorities were quickly made evident. Within his first year, he embarked upon state visits to India’s immediate neighbourhood, three crucial Indian Ocean island countries, important Asia-Pacific powers (China, Japan, and Australia), and eventually Western Europe.
Modi’s second year followed in much the same fashion, with a ground-breaking visit to Bangladesh, a swing through Central Asia, a long overdue visit to Afghanistan, and a renewed focus on the Middle East or West Asia. It also included a surprise stopover in Pakistan, a trip no Indian prime minister had managed since 2004. In addition, Modi has in his first two years played host in India to most of the world’s top leaders, including those of the United States, China, Russia, France, Japan, and Germany. He also hosted a landmark India-Africa Forum Summit last November that involved 41 heads of state and government.
Despite this flurry of activity, several commentators have been left disappointed by Modi’s – and India’s – handling of international relations. My Brookings India colleague W.P.S. Sidhu has pointed to a lack of strategic vision, and describes Modi’s various foreign policy initiatives – such as Neighbourhood First and Act East – as “vacuous.” While commending the prime minister’s sound instincts, initiative, and energy, former foreign secretary Shyam Saran has lamented the lack of an overall national security strategy and criticised the priority granted showmanship over substance. Meanwhile, Rajesh Rajagopalan of Jawaharlal Nehru University has expressed disappointment with the lack of new ideas and synergy and his colleague Happymon Jacob has faulted New Delhi’s bullying and poor imagination for bad relations with its neighbours.
Much of this criticism is perplexing. Ambiguity and deniability have value in foreign affairs. As a consequence, neither this Indian government nor any of its predecessors have ever explicitly spelled out their strategic intentions in a single document, although there are plenty of public statements that offer a good indication of the government’s outlook. These public articulations, combined with the nature, outcomes, and timings of Modi’s diplomatic activities, offer a clear picture of India’s priorities and strategic objectives. They are essentially five-fold:
- Prioritizing an integrated neighbourhood; “Neighbourhood First.”
- Leveraging international partnerships to promote India’s domestic development.
- Ensuring a stable and multipolar balance of power in the Indo-Pacific; “Act East.”
- Dissuading Pakistan from supporting terrorism.
- Advancing Indian representation and leadership on matters of global governance.
These are the yardsticks against which the international activities of this government – or, for that matter, any Indian government – should be measured. In each case, it is important to assess the progress made, the setbacks experienced, and the long-term or structural challenges that will continue to confront India.