Foreign policy, at one level is a continuum as it is transferred from one government to another. However, when Prime Minister Modi took over in 2014, he transformed this foreign policy in multiple ways. Although the issues and approaches remain the same, the transformation was clearly visible. Today, India’s foreign policy is bold, proactive, innovative and ambitious.
India’s foreign policy is bold as it has shown an uncompromising firmness on issues relating to the nation’s integrity and honour. The approach to handling India’s two neighbours is distinct from what it used to be. The firmness demonstrated in India’s handling of its relations with Pakistan is a clear indicator. Similarly, with China, whether it was the first ever visit of President Xi Jinping to New Delhi or the recent standoff at Doklam, the government has shown required firmness in conveying a strong message to our eastern neighbour. There are many such examples where firmness has been shown, when India’s interests are seen to have been affected by some of their actions. The Prime Minister’s decision not to include Maldives in his itinerary during his visit to various island nations in the Indian Ocean Region is a case in point which highlights the government’s bold and firm foreign policy approach.
Traditionally, India has been looked at as a notoriously reticent nation in international affairs, but today, it is being seen as proactive in its engagement with the international fora. For example, when countries like the United States of America had changing positions over the Paris Climate Summit, the Indian stand remained steadfast. In fact, India played a very crucial role in clinching the Paris Climate deal. Similarly, India has gone ahead and created new forums like the International Solar Alliance and has been proactive in its increased engagement with Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. India’s active presence in successive G-20 forums has been recognised, as has its greater engagement in Davos. All this shows the proactive nature of India’s foreign policy, which is now no longer reticent and withdrawn but distinctly proactive.
The next transformative feature of India’s foreign policy is ambition. In my view, it is for the first time that India has openly shown its ambition to rise as a global power when, during the Prime Minister’s first visit to USA, Mr Narendra Modi, along with the then US President Barack Obama, issued a joint statement in which it was mentioned that India has an ambition to rise as an influential and responsible global power. India’s rise, along with being influential, will be responsible and peaceful, and will not give anyone sleepless nights. Therefore, a responsible but an ambitious rise as a global power is one of India’s foreign policy goals.
Foreign policy cannot be romantic or driven by slogans. It must be pragmatic and it has to be blended with a nation’s national interests. We have done this with great success and effect. One important aspect of blending foreign policy with national interest is India’s policy of de-hyphenation. An emphasis on standalone and bilateral relations without being influenced by any hyphenated factor is a very unique element that has been introduced into India’s foreign policy. It began in 2014 when Prime Minister Modi visited New York to deliver his speech at the United Nations General Assembly. There was a suggestion that he should meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. As per earlier practises, a meeting with the Israeli leadership would also have entailed a meeting with the leaders of Palestine. It was Prime Minister Modi who took the decision to end this convention, which made it possible to have a standalone meeting with the Prime Minister of Israel.
Similarly, when world leaders would visit India they would balance it with a stopover in Islamabad, regardless of the fact that such a visit to Pakistan was warranted. When President Clinton visited India for three days in March 2000, he made a brief stopover in Islamabad for five hours! Visiting both nations together had become a ritual, but now this too has been ended. Standalone visits and bilateral relationships help both countries. When Prime Minister Modi visited Israel recently, he was the first Indian Prime Minister to step on their soil, and the visit was a standalone one. In fact, the Prime Minister has also embacked on a standalone visit to Palestine in February 2018. For long, India has been a victim of hyphenation. The present government has ended this policy keeping clear national interests in mind.
India’s foreign policy is now also more innovative. Generally, India’s foreign policy was understood to rest on two important pillars - economic interest and national security. When the BJP came to power, three more pillars were added. As such, India’s foreign policy today is guided by the five pillars of ‘Panchamrit’. While the first two pillars remain economic prosperity (samridhi) and national security (suraksha), the third pillar added is ‘Samman’ or dignity and honour of India. India includes both the citizens of our nation as well as expatriate Indians. Our obligation is to ensure the security, honour, and dignity of all Indians as well as the dignity, security and honour of India. Four years since 2014, we can confidently say that thanks to the efforts of the entire foreign policy establishment, especially the Foreign Minister and the various missions, we have been able to infuse in individuals, pride in their Indian identity. Today, every Indian feels secure and proud of his Indian identity and his Indian connection. Therefore, ‘Samman’ is an important dimension.
The next pillar, ‘Samvad,’ is about greater engagement. Prime Minister Modi, other leaders and officials no longer only meet just their counterparts, but a variety of other stakeholders too. We now have engagement on multiple levels, from government to government, government to business, government to people, and government to academics, scholars and the diaspora. This wider engagement has been made a dimension of India’s foreign policy approach. At times the Prime Minister, in a single day attends twelve to fourteen engagements. Besides official engagements, meetings are held with a diverse range of people and establishments, which could be Nobel laureates, religious heads, civil society, diaspora and others.
A special attention has been given to engagement with the diaspora. This has helped us in creating fronts across the spectrum in academia and other spheres. As far as the diaspora itself is concerned, it has definitely helped us in two ways. First, the diaspora was and continues to be a divided diaspora, but the government’s efforts have helped in creating larger unity within the diaspora community. As a member of the BJP, we used to have this temptation to hold Overseas Friends of BJP events when the Prime Minister went abroad. We were however instructed, that the Prime Minister’s event will be for the entire diaspora and will not be restricted to those who support the party. This has helped in creating greater unity within the diaspora community. Through that unity, the diaspora has been able to rise as a political constituency in their respective countries. This will help India in different ways. These efforts have also helped in establishing a good and live contact between the diaspora and the main Indian territory. This neatly ties in with the fifth pillar - Sanskriti - using our cultural and civilisational links as a tool of our foreign policy.
In the past, foreign policy had shied away from using our cultural and civilisational wealth as a tool of our foreign policy, as we assumed that in order to have a secular foreign policy we cannot include culture. Under the Modi government, these have been converted into effective instruments of our foreign policy. The Japanese Prime Minister went to Varanasi and did a Ganga Aarti and the Chinese Premier participated in local festivals in Gujarat. Similarly, Prime Minister Modi visited the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal, a mosque in central Asia, a church or synagogue elsewhere and even played traditional drums in one country! This aspect of making cultural and civilisational wealth of our country an effective diplomatic tool is an important hallmark of our foreign policy. Along with Samriddhi (economic prosperity) and Suraksha (security), we have created a robust five pronged approach to India’s foreign policy.
Finally, India gave the call ‘together we grow’ in its neighbourhood. This gave confidence to our neighbours that India’s rise will help in the rise of our neighbours and vice versa. The Prime Minister gave this call in Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. He spoke to the nations as sovereign equals and not as a big brother. A senior Nepalese leader recently told me (when Gujarat and Nepal were in election mode) that, “Sir, if I go to Gujarat and campaign against your Prime Minister, people will pelt stones at me, but if your Prime Minister comes to Nepal and campaigns against me, I will lose my deposit. Your Prime Minister is so influential amongst the masses in my country”. This simply reflects the confidence we have given of ‘togetherness’.
India’s foreign policy has for a long time been land based as we have traditionally been Westward looking and therefore, our interests have been linked to European and American interests. We have now introduced the policy of ocean-centric approach. Looking to the East calls for a change in our thinking as our issues are different. This change has been brought in over the last three to four years. Today, we value our relationship with ASEAN countries as much as we do our relationship with the European Union or USA. Hence, we had all the ten heads of ASEAN as guests of honour in the 2017 Republic Day Parade. This was done even though some of the countries are small and do not have much dealings with India, such as Laos and Cambodia. The change is underway. India has moved from its policy of ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East,’ because we believe that the 21st century global power no longer exists in the Pacific region but is today, in the Indian Ocean region.In conclusion, India’s emphasis on its ‘Act East’ policy has finally led to the Western world accepting the centrality and primacy of the Indian Ocean to 21st century geopolitics and for the first time, the West has started using the phrase Indo-Pacific instead of Asia Pacific. A case in point is President Trump articulating the phrase Indo-Pacific, as we have made it our foreign policy objective and priority. Today, India’s foreign policy is bold, proactive, ambitious and innovative.
(This article is a summary of the address delivered by Shri Ram Madhav, National General Secretary, BJP and Director, India Foundation on 31st January, 2017 at New Delhi at the Workshop on India’s Foreign Policy organised by India Foundation in partnership with the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India.)
(This article is carried in the print edition of March April 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)