Old biryani in a new handi?
Narendra Modi was projected as a divisive persona from day one by his critics. They feared that under his leadership South Asia would become a nuclear flashpoint. Many even predicted an Indo-Pak war as inevitable in the event of Mr Modi becoming the Prime Minister. However, much to the shock and surprise of these doomsday prophets, Mr Modi began his innings on a positive note, which has been hailed the world over.
Even the United States, which had strong reservations about Mr Modi and had even denied him a visa till recently, described the gesture of sending invitations for the inauguration to all Saarc leaders as a “strong and positive signal”.
In fact, even during the election campaign, notwithstanding his strong stand on terrorism, Mr Modi had stated that India and Pakistan should work together to bring down the high poverty rates in both countries, something that was not highlighted for apparent reasons.
Mr Modi’s decision to invite the heads of governments of Saarc nations should not have come as a surprise to anyone who has cared to carefully read the BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 elections. It said, “BJP believes that political stability, progress and peace in the region are essential for South Asia’s growth and development. The Congress-led UPA has failed to establish enduring friendly and cooperative relations with India’s neighbours. India’s relations with traditional allies have turned cold. India and its neighbours have drifted apart. Instead of clarity, we have seen confusion. The absence of statecraft has never been felt so acutely as today. India is seen to be floundering, whereas it should have been engaging with the world with confidence.”
In fact, the Prime Minister was only following in letter and spirit one of the guiding principles of the foreign policy as enunciated in the manifesto: “Instead of being led by big power interests, we will engage proactively on our own with countries in the neighbourhood and beyond.”
The guiding principles also stated that if voted to power, the BJP government would pursue friendly relations in India’s neighbourhood and work towards strengthening regional forums such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
In his meeting with the Pakistani Prime Minister, Mr Modi did not compromise or dilute on any of his earlier commitments, including a tough stance on terrorism, which was amply conveyed to Nawaz Sharif. Yet, he succeeded in breaking the ice, demolishing stereotypes and getting an image makeover. He is no longer seen as a hardline, hawkish, jingoistic provincial leader with little vision beyond India.
Moreover, by inviting the leaders from Sri Lanka and Bangaldesh, Mr Modi has decisively shown that in matters of foreign affairs, the Central government would have the final say and not the states as was the case during the UPA regime. National interests would be the paramount guiding factor in the conduct of foreign relations and not the narrow outlook of state leaders, even if it means annoying a few allies.
Though his predecessor from BJP, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, was backstabbed by Pakistan in Kargil after he took a bus ride to Lahore, Mr Modi has shown his determination to follow in his footsteps in pursuit of peace. But, he will be cautious.
However, for every argument there is certainly a specific response!
While nobody would like to criticise a Prime Minister-elect’s initiative of inviting representatives of neighbouring nations to his oath-taking ceremony, I am certainly not one of those who will sing paeans of a play whose Act I has just commenced. Of course, optics has a place in the art of diplomacy, but the effectiveness of foreign policies must be judged on the basis of measurable deliverables, not hype surrounding some events.
The deliverables, as far as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy is concerned, can be judged from the unprecedented role India now plays in the region and the world. India supported Nepal during its peace process and transition to a democratic, stable and peaceful state. With Bangladesh, several important agreements relating to security, counter-terrorism, power and culture were signed during the visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in January 2010. India-Sri Lanka relations underwent a qualitative shift, especially in areas of economic cooperation, investment, connectivity and developmental projects. India expressed its conviction that there can be no military solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka and that the only way out was a negotiated, political settlement acceptable to all sections — which was accepted by the Rajapakse government.
With the entry of Afghanistan into Saarc, India played a major role in the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan. The year 2011 witnessed the formalisation of the Full Strategic Partnership between India and Afghanistan. India assumed Saarc chairmanship in April 2007 and moved Saarc from a declaratory to an implementation phase.
With Pakistan, the Indian government pursued a policy of constructive engagement to establish peaceful relations through the composite dialogue process predicated on Pakistan fulfilling its commitment not to permit any territory under its control to be used to support terrorism in any manner. The peace process enhanced people-to-people and trade relations. India’s forceful diplomacy obliged Pakistan to admit that its citizens were responsible for carrying out the dastardly 26/11 attacks in Mumbai. Today, Narendra Modi seeks to carry on the same policy which he and his colleagues unfairly criticised. Nor were 10 heads demanded by Sushma Swaraj, nor was any timetable set on the 26/11 trial, even though shooting from across the border continued as Mr Modi was being sworn in. The sound of bombs and bullets was ignored to hear Nawaz Sharif’s voice, contrary to what Mr Modi had committed to the electorate just a few days ago. Biryani diplomacy, anybody?
Space constraints don’t allow me to list the innumerable foreign policy highlights of Dr Singh’s government with US, Europe and Africa, but when the US President sends a thank you note to the former Indian Prime Minister, thanking him for his “vision and boldness” and confesses he would be missed, I think the tribute speaks for itself.
If a one-day old Modi government is “far-sighted” for re-packaging and taking forward what is essentially the same brand of diplomacy, notwithstanding Mr Modi’s opportunistic public vilification of it during his election campaign, then a 10-year-long Manmohan Singh government should be rightfully labelled as “visionary”. Of course, I don’t expect those hawk-turned-dove Modi-cheerleaders who masquerade as “foreign policy experts” on prime time TV to recognise that.