Amb. Sibal on Modi's New Indian Foreign Policy

Commentary | May 21, 2014

India's election of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party brings with it a new foreign policy approach. Writing for MailOnline India, EWI Board Member Amb. Kanwal Sibal offers his opinion on Modi's potential policies across a range of issues. Amb. Sibal was a member of the Indian Foreign Service who went on to serve as the country's foreign secretary. 

Read the full story here on MailOnline India.  


Foreign Ties will Blossom Under the New Modi Government 

The BJP's massive electoral victory brings us foreign policy gains. The prospect of a strong and stable government in India makes our external image more positive.

Other countries could conclude that the new government will have a more self-confident foreign policy, and will defend the country's interests with greater vigour. Since the BJP is widely characterised at home and abroad as a Hindu nationalist party, it will be assumed that the Modi-led government will be more "nationalistic" in its thinking and actions, and will pursue national goals more sturdily. 


Notwithstanding their rhetoric about India's global role, big powers have for long seen us as a country too preoccupied by internal problems to be able to act on the international stage sufficiently energetically. 

Issues of poverty and managing our complex diversities apart, coalition politics in India has been seen by our external interlocutors as contributing to governmental delays in decision making and failures in implementation even in the foreign policy domain. Modi's personality gives us cards to play externally with advantage. He is seen as a strong and decisive leader, committed to making India vibrant economically, and more secure. 

For those eyeing more economic engagement with India, Modi's development agenda offers greater investment opportunities. For those seeking more engagement on security issues, Modi's India will appear as a more confident partner. For adversaries, habituated to passive and defensive responses to deliberate provocations, the likelihood of a less tolerant Indian response under a Modi-led government might induce rethinking on their part about the price they may have to pay for aggressive or assertive policies. 

These real and psychological advantages that India obtains under Modi's leadership should not be frittered away needlessly. Prudence and "responsible" conduct are often used as a cloak to cover diffidence and timidity. There will be those who would advise that having won such a massive mandate, with all the political strength that comes with it, a Modi-led government, burdened by a negative ideological image that worries sections at home and abroad, should send re-assuring signals to all. 

There should be no requirement for this, as it is India that has been long sinned against. Sections of our political class, intellectuals and media personalities have done great disservice to the country by their incessant vilification and demonisation of Modi, making untenable historical parallels with the rise of fascism in Europe and making egregious references to Hitler and abusively using words like "genocide" to castigate him.


That otherwise sensible people should have for so long lost all sense of proportion remains a puzzle. Maybe they felt their self-esteem rise in proportion to their revilement of Modi. This calumny of Modi has naturally coloured outsiders' views of him, which explains the negative commentaries on him in the liberal western press. 

Modi's exceptional mandate, however, is derived from the masses of India, and they have chosen him for what he is and stands for, unbothered by the obloquy of his detractors. 

Questions are being asked as to what "initiatives" Modi could take on the foreign policy front now that he has got a strong mandate. This suggests it has become somehow incumbent on the new government to prove its credentials in some way to the international community. It also carries the nuance that India could not meet the expectations of select countries because his party hobbled the choices of the previous Prime Minister. 

A feeling also exists that the previous government missed opportunities and was too passive in its foreign policy, a situation that the new government should redress. The sub-text of most such criticism is that India failed to live up to US expectations and allowed the relationship to slip into a lower gear, besides not being able to push the then prime minister's vision of peace with Pakistan. 


Not having engaged in any provocative act against either China or Pakistan, India would be right to wait for China and Pakistan to signal a change of thinking towards it. In reality, repeated provocations have come from their side, which the previous government preferred, in China's case, either to downplay or not counter, or, in Pakistan's case, avoid retaliation in order not to have to admit the failure of the policy of engagement despite terrorism and Pakistan's enduring hostility towards us. 

China's assertiveness on the border will have to be watched, especially because its conduct in the South China and East China Seas flashes red signals to us that at a time of its choosing its posture towards us can suddenly harden.

The recent signals from Pakistan have been uniformly negative, whether on Kashmir, curbing anti-Indian religious extremists, trade and water, and these have been capped by the expulsion of two Indian journalists despite the much touted media role in improving relations as signified, for example, by the "Aman ki Asha" initiative. Nawaz Sharif's congratulatory message to Modi should be taken as a routine diplomatic exercise, with the invitation to visit Pakistan as a way of making himself look good and win an easy diplomatic point.

Our relationship with the US remains very important, but to reinvigorate it the US should not let short-term transactional considerations take precedence over the logic of the strategic relationship. Modi being the sole victim of the US legislation on religious freedom, the White House should be issuing an Executive Order to annul the State Department's decision to blacklist Modi in the first place. 

While Obama's gesture of telephoning Modi and alluding to a Washington visit by him can be appreciated, the fact that as Prime Minister he can now obtain an "A" category US visa does not erase the original insult.

Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English via Flickr.