By M Waqas Jan
As Mr. Modi confidently pushes forth his re-election bid in the ongoing Indian elections, numerous analysts have offered various summations of his outgoing government’s performance. These include a broad range of analyses on his characteristic ‘hands-on’ approach to foreign policy, which in contrast to his predecessors’ has been self-styled as a major paradigm shift.
This perspective is evident for instance in Professor Harsh Pant’s recently released book titled ‘Indian Foreign Policy under the Modi Era’. One of Mr. Modi’s long-standing proponents, Prof. Pant has credited this Indian Prime Minister with not only injecting a certain impetus and vigor to India’s foreign relations, but also with fundamentally altering the more passive and risk-averse approaches of the past. This has entailed India taking on a more leading as opposed to a balancing role in its relations with major powers at the global level, while subsequently consolidating its own leadership role within the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions.
These aspects are argued as being evident in the renewed emphasis on greater cooperation with ASEAN countries, as well as the revival of the BIMSTEC. Both these moves have been credited as forming an integral part of Mr. Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy, which has been widely acknowledged as a much needed advancement of India’s long floundering ‘Look East’ policy. As part of India’s own bid to contain China’s rising influence and its threats of encirclement, India’s pivot to the East has in turn also been supported by the US, Japan and Australia as part of what is now referred to as the ‘Quadrilateral Alliance’. These developments are just one example of what many including Prof. Pant have hailed as a more assertive and successful use of India’s soft power capabilities.
Simultaneously, Mr. Modi’s hard-line stance on Pakistan too has been lauded by his supporters along similar lines. Veering between surprise visits and unprecedented military strikes, his approach towards Pakistan has been to stay one step ahead by remaining both evasive and unpredictable. What this has done is effectively negate any possibility of Pakistan playing a stabilizing role in the region while more or less ignoring its very existence. This stands in stark contrast to the cautious optimism and measured restraint employed by his predecessors, who were still willing to engage in at least in some form of dialogue, instead of completely ignoring and shutting out South Asia’s second largest economy and military power.
As a result, Mr. Modi’s readiness to use military force and create space for cross-border operations within the nuclear threshold has been lauded as bold and necessary by his proponents. By exerting the kind of hard power that is perhaps more characteristic of a regional hegemon, the ensuing notions of ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘swift military response’ have come to form a key part of India’s foreign policy discourse on Pakistan. Something that is related directly to the self-aggrandizing narrative of India’s emergence as a potential global power, or as Mr. Modi himself has oft repeated, a ‘super-power in the making.’
Yet, while these allusions to India becoming a major world power find rapturous applause amidst the country’s ongoing election rallies, there are still a number of limitations that remain more or less self-imposed by this approach to outside observers. This is evident in the fact that even though India’s Act East policy may have led it to reach as far East as the Western shores of the United States, it has done so at the detriment of a whole slew of opportunities to its more immediate West. This in turn has caused India to arguably ignore and fail to adapt to a series of key developments amidst the changing global status-quo
For instance, by relegating SAARC to near redundancy and by trying to ignore Pakistan’s very existence, Mr. Modi’s policies have arguably allowed a fast rising China to gain even greater influence not only in Central Asia, but also within its own traditional spheres of influence within the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions. This head in the sand approach and reluctance to engage with countries which it fears it cannot control, points instead to a stubborn and near defeatist approach to diplomacy. An approach which seems a far cry from the above espoused goal of becoming a regional let alone global power.
This lack of progress is further evident in the recent aftermath of the attempted aerial strikes by India into Pakistani territory following the Pulwama crisis. In what is increasingly being termed as a grave miscalculation on India’s part, the very public loss of men and resources is perhaps trumped only by the severe loss of prestige and credibility to India’s aspired role as a regional leader. Hence, considering what Mr. Modi has to show for all his pro-activity and bluster, India’s lack of leadership is becoming increasingly apparent in a region where its ambivalence and a clear absence of direction are already negating the decades of progress made by his predecessors.Ironically however, as Mr. Modi’s numerous proponents and speech writers had probably realized early on, the electoral value of this self-aggrandizing narrative still carries immense relevance at home, despite its apparent hollowness to outside observers. After all, what would politics be without its many delusions of grandeur and self-aggrandizement amongst its most seasoned practitioners such as Mr. Modi.