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Modi 3.0: Time to course correct India’s foreign policy

New Delhi now has a chance to holistically evaluate its foreign policy performance in the past 10 years and make changes as needed

Modi 3.0: Time to course correct India’s foreign policy
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

While we in India might hold that Narendra Modi, deprived of the absolute majority granted to him in 2014 and 2019, has been told by the electorate to be less authoritarian, he will remain tall among his peers as he  attends the G7 summit in Italy. 

Many of the attendees, including Joe Biden, Rishi Sunak, and Justin Trudeau do not know whether they will be there for the next G7 summit. France’s Emmanuel Macron, who has called for a snap election to the French parliament, is likely  to see that   his party  doing  badly in the election.

It is crystal clear that Modi 3.0 will need serious course correction compared to Modi 2.0 when it comes to domestic policy. 

But what about foreign policy? 

For the Indian electorate, foreign policy is not among the top concerns. Nevertheless, India now has a chance to holistically evaluate its performance in that area over the past 10 years and make changes as needed.

External affairs minister (EAM) S. Jaishankar has listed his three priorities for the next five years: finding a solution for the border problem with China; ending cross-border terrorism from Pakistan; and ensuring a permanent seat for India in the UN Security Council.

Border issues with China

The border problem with China can be resolved only if both countries want to resolve it at the negotiating table. Is there any reason to believe that China is willing to engage in serious talks? Hardly any.

In 2017, there was a standoff at Doklam, where the boundaries of India, Bhutan, and China meet. The standoff lasted from 16 June to 28 August. The two sides agreed on mutual withdrawal, which enabled Prime Minister Modi to attend the BRICS summit in China in the first week of September. After the initial withdrawal, the Chinese side did not carry out further withdrawals. In short, China agreed to the deal only to ensure Modi’s attendance at the summit.

There is no reason to believe that China is prepared to settle the matter across the table. It is in China’s interest to keep this issue alive and to encroach upon India’s territory from time to time.  Statements made by some leaders that not even “an inch” of territory has been taken by China are not credible. If that were the case, why hold meetings about withdrawal by China? 

Security issues with Pakistan

Regarding Pakistan, reducing policy toward our neighbor to the elimination of cross-border terrorism is not necessarily the best approach to serve India’s interest. Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister and head of the ruling party (PML-N)Pakistan Muslim League-Nawazin his congratulatory message to Modi, said, “Let us replace hate with hope and seize the opportunity to shape the destiny of the two billion people of South Asia.” In his reply, Modi highlighted the importance of security by saying, “Advancing the well-being and security of our people shall always remain our priority.”

Pakistan is a neighbor, and the two countries should do their best to live as normal neighbors. It is true that Pakistan has exported terror from its soil to India. Policy towards Pakistan has to be formulated in a holistic manner. Focusing on terror alone has not worked, as shown by the recent terrorist attacks in Kashmir.

It will be a win-win situation for India and Pakistan if the trade by road, stopped by Pakistan in 2019 when India abrogated Article 370, is restored. Should India take the initiative by broaching the matter through diplomatic channels? The argument that since Pakistan stopped the trade, it must ask for its resumption does not hold water. As the bigger neighbor, India can propose it. Pakistan, in serious economic difficulties, will find it difficult to reject the proposal.

If trade is restored, the next step for India is to lift the restrictions on visas for Pakistanis. Let them come in their thousands and see for themselves the progress India has made within a democratic framework.

As time passes, the lobby in Pakistan seeking normal relations with India will get stronger. India can also appoint a High Commissioner to Islamabad as a gesture of goodwill.

A seat at the table

Regarding the search for a permanent seat in the Security Council, it is high time India attempted to figure out why it has not made any progress in the matter, and whether the G4 projectworking jointly with Germany, Japan, and Brazil to support each other’s bids for permanent seats on the Security Councilmakes any sense. 

The UN Charter needs to be amended for increasing the number of permanent seats from the current five (P5). The General Assembly should pass a resolution by a two-thirds majority; that amendment should be ratified by a two-thirds majority, including all five permanent membersChina, France, Russia, UK and the US. In short, members of P5 have a veto at the ratification stage. The amendment should also state that the General Assembly will select the new permanent members after the amendment has come into force.

The G4 project has a serious flaw in that it disproportionately favors Western Europe, which makes up only 2.43% of the global population, by potentially giving it three seats on the Security Council with the inclusion of Germany, alongside the existing seats of France and UK.

Italy has been working overtime against the G4 project, and there is no reason to believe that the amendment will pass with the required majority in the General Assembly. China has made it clear it would oppose Japan. Brazil will also face opposition from Latin America.

How did the G4 project originate? In 2005, when the General Assembly was in session, a summit of five countriesIndia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and South Africawas held, and it was decided to form a G5 to reform the Security Council. The next morning, a press conference was to be held to announce the birth of G5. However, South Africa had second thoughts. It did not attend the press conference and sent word that in the absence of a resolution by the Africa Union, it was not going to be part of any G5. Therefore, the G5 became G4.

What alternative strategy should India have adopted? First and foremost, self-declared candidacies even before the amendment has come into force do not make sense.

India should have built up momentum with the support of the Global South for raising the number of permanent seats from 5 to, say, 11 or 13, without projecting its own candidacy. Germany and Japan would have lent their support. Once the General Assembly passes such a resolution, the P5 would find it embarrassing to delay or deny ratification.

Since the G4 project has not worked out even after almost 20 years, there is scope for course correction.

Neighbors First

Jaishankar mentioned among his priorities, rather en passant, relations with neighbors. New Delhi has not adhered to its proclaimed policy of ‘Neighbors First’. 

When the newly elected President Mohamed Muizzu of Maldives wanted to make his first visit abroad to India, there was no need to have stood in his way. Nor was there any need to delay bilateral consultations on the withdrawal of Indian military personnel. India pushed him into China’s lap and hoped that his party would lose the parliamentary election. His party won by a good majority. Let us hope that by inviting Muizzu to the swearing-in, India has started course correction.

Such course correction is called for in the case of Nepal, too.

To address some of the issues not listed by the EAM, we start with policy towards Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza. South Africa took the lead to take Israel to the ICJ-International Court of Justice. There are good reasons for India to have abstained from giving its views at the ICJ. 

But India’s not taking the lead in calling for an unconditional ceasefire calls into question its claim to be a leader of the Global South. That claim cannot be based entirely on inducting the African Union into the G20 for which there was no opposition.

India’s relations with the US are likely to get stronger despite the Gurpatwant Singh Pannun affair. 

India could have handled relations with Canada better. The ghost of Hardeep Singh Nijjar is not going to disappear. Even if some Sikhs in Canada take out a procession calling for Khalistan, as long as there is no violence or threat of violence, India should ignore it.

It is legal in Canada to preach separatism. Canada had conducted a referendum in the province of Quebec on its separation from Canada. The Sikhs are a political force in Canada. India’s opposition to the Sikh political leadership is counterproductive, as such opposition gives them additional support and clout.

Let us hope that the ministry of external affairs will spare time to introspect and effect the necessary changes in policy as required from time to time. At times, policy changes are best done without any grand proclamations.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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