As the BJP-led government in India moves toward the half-way mark of its five-year term after a good start, it has so far failed in mending fences with China and Pakistan. Ties with Nepal too soured over the Himalayan nation’s new Constutution and the protests and blockade that followed. But India’s relations with the U.S. has warmed significantly. Prime Minister Modi scored a major foreign policy success this week with his visit to Tehran which is likely to boost India-Iran ties
When Narendra Modi took over as India’s prime minister in May 2014, he came to office with virtually no foreign policy experience. Yet expectations ran high. Even India’s neighbors, who had viewed his rise with some consternation given his muscular rhetoric during the election campaign, looked forward to engagement with a new leader in Delhi.
Modi began well by prioritizing India’s immediate neighborhood.
In what was widely described as a “diplomatic master-stroke,” he invited the leaders of the member-states of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), along with Mauritius, to his swearing-in ceremony, and followed that up with a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif the next day.
Within the first year, he had visited all the neighbors, excluding Pakistan and the Maldives.
However, as the Modi government prepares to mark its second anniversary in office, its achievements in the region are a mixed bag. Relations with Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Myanmar and Sri Lanka improved or did not worsen. India-Bangladesh relations have improved vastly over the last couple of years. Delhi and Dhaka signed and ratified the long-pending Land Boundary Agreement (LBA). Importantly, India has been able to limit China’s port-building activities in Bangladesh.
As for Sri Lanka, the change of government there raised Delhi’s hopes of Colombo correcting its ‘excessive tilt’ to China. However, the Modi government was unable to prevent debt-ridden Sri Lanka from slipping back into China’s arms. Months after it suspended China’s role in the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City project, the Sri Lankan government revived it despite Delhi’s objections.
India’s relations with Nepal nosedived in 2015 when the Modi government responded rather churlishly to Nepal’s promulgation of a new Constitution in Sept. It was followed by a fuel blockade along the India-Nepal border that India was reportedly “supporting unofficially.”
The five-months-long blockade not only triggered a tidal wave of anti-India sentiment in Nepal but also, it pushed Kathmandu to import fuel from China for the first time in four decades. This paved the way for greater Sino-Nepal co-operation, which is expected to undermine India’s substantial influence in Nepal.
India-Nepal relations soured further in early May when India was accused of masterminding political instability in the Himalayan country. The Modi government’s arrogant behavior toward Nepal is perhaps its biggest failure on the foreign front.
Its handling of relations with Pakistan and China was disappointing too. Modi has repeatedly signaled capacity to take the kind of risks needed to kick-start stagnant relations with Pakistan and China; his impromptu dropping in to greet Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in December 2015 is an example of such spontaneity. However, his government has failed to develop a coherent policy toward these key neighbors.
Thus, the Modi government’s approach to Pakistan lurched between extremes. Long periods of sulking and refusal to engage in dialogue with Pakistan were punctuated by sudden and short bursts of bilateral bonhomie. As a result, after a surprisingly great start two years ago, India-Pakistan relations remain in a rut.
As for China, while top-level visits have gone well and the economic ties have strengthened, meaningful co-operation between India and China remains elusive. The Modi government failed to secure Beijing’s support for its efforts to gain membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Neither did Beijing back it in the United Nations on banning Pakistan-based anti-India terrorists such as Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar.
Delhi engaged in some grandstanding; it issued visas to Uyghur activist Dolkun Isa and other Chinese dissidents to participate in a conference at Dharamsala. However, it quickly backed down, laying bare its extreme vulnerability to Chinese pressure.
India’s relations with the United States warmed significantly over the past two years. The two sides “agreed in principle” to signing the Logistics Exchange and Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), a watered down version of the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), which the US signs with military allies. Signing of the agreement is expected to propel India to great power status and to open doors for India’s access to the very latest of American military technology.
Whether the Modi government’s signing of LEMOA can be treated as an achievement will become apparent in the coming years. After all, it draws India more firmly into the US’ orbit. It is bound to raise hackles in Beijing and could worsen already troubled Sino-Indian relations.
In the first two years of the Modi government, India’s foreign policy did not witness dramatic changes; economic co-operation remained the focus of India’s diplomacy. However, what set apart its diplomacy from that of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was that it was robust and vigorous.
Modi jetted around the world relentlessly; it paid off as he was able to attract investment pledges worth billions of dollars. However, the real success of his high-profile diplomacy will be evident only when the pledges translate into concrete investment.
Many of the ‘successes’ being claimed by the Modi government are in fact accomplishments of the UPA. But the latter could not reap the fruit of its efforts because of its diffidence, dithering and sheer bad luck. The LBA with Bangladesh, for instance, was almost signed by the UPA government but it lacked the numbers in parliament to push it through. Similarly, the UPA engaged in talks with the US on the logistics agreement but shied away from taking it further fearing Opposition’s criticism.
Days ahead of the Modi government’s second anniversary, the Prime Minister has scored a major foreign policy success. His visit to Tehran has boosted India’s relations with Iran, which had soured considerably under UPA rule. More importantly, India’s participation in the Chabahar port project and the India-Iran-Afghanistan trade corridor pact can be expected to enhance India’s economic role in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, as well.
This is a morale-booster for the Modi government as it moves toward the half-way mark of its five-year term.
Dr Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bengaluru, India, who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org