Indian foreign policy under Modi

Published: May 26, 2014
The writer was foreign secretary from 1994-97 and also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran (1992-94) and the US (1990-91)

The writer was foreign secretary from 1994-97 and also served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Iran (1992-94) and the US (1990-91)

As I write this there is word from Islamabad that Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif will travel to New Delhi on May 26 to attend prime minister-elect Narendra Modi’s swearing in as the new prime minister of India. He will be joining leaders of the other Saarc countries who have been invited.

India, as the Indian media reports, has strained relations with most of its neighbours and these strains were intensified by some statements made in the heat of the election campaign by Modi and other BJP leaders. Some assurances about the new government’s policies were required by all India’s neighbours but I believe the principal target of this diplomatic overture was Pakistan. Regionally, relations with Pakistan are the most consequential not only because both countries are nuclear weapon powers and have serious disputes that threaten regional peace but also because India-Pakistan relations are seen as the key to the advancement of the regional cooperation for which Saarc was meant to be the vehicle.

Whether it was the Indian Foreign Office or some of Modi’s political advisers who suggested inviting Saarc leaders, one must acknowledge that it is astute diplomacy. It finesses, particularly in the case of Pakistan, the legitimate expectation that since the Pakistan PM had visited India it was now the Indian PM’s turn to visit Pakistan.

On this decision, there appeared to be divisions among Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s advisers, but these seem to have been resolved. It can be expected that during the visit he will, apart from attending the formal ceremony, have a substantive meeting with the new prime minister where the two men will not only be able to take each other’s measure but will be able to agree to resume the currently stalled ‘Composite Dialogue’ between the two countries and even finalise dates for doing so.

Clearly there will be no decisions other than this made in the bilateral meeting but one can expect that there will be a flagging by both sides of their principal concerns, which on the Indian side will include the issue of terrorism — long viewed as a common problem but on which India expects more substantive action from Pakistan and on expanding trade and economic relations. Given Modi’s domestic agenda and the expertise he has acquired in his 12 years of economic development in Gujarat, it can be expected that the latter rather than the former will be the subject on which Modi will be most focused.

From Pakistan’s side one can expect a complaint that the Composite Dialogue started in 1997 has yielded few results on substantive issues. The mantra of ensuring an ‘uninterrupted and uninterruptable dialogue’ will be repeated as will the mantra that the common enemies are ‘poverty, unemployment and terrorism’ and that these enemies can best be tackled by bilateral and regional cooperation after bilateral disputes are settled or move towards settlement.

Further afield, the US and other Western countries treated Modi as a pariah, after the 2002 carnage in Gujarat until it became clear early this year that he was likely to be the new leader of India and started the process of recognising his new status. This process culminated with Obama’s congratulatory message being accompanied by an invitation to visit the United States. Modi will put aside any past rancour; concentrate on securing the needed economic and technological cooperation and foreign investment; and perhaps avoid steps that would antagonise Western public opinion.

It is too early to say that fears about Modi’s Administration taking a hard line on regional issues are entirely misplaced. The invitation to the swearing-in ceremony, however, suggests that Modi intends adopting a more constructive approach. If Modi remains focused on domestic issues and the well-being of the ‘aam aadmi’, his foreign policy would have to be designed to prioritise ‘economic’ rather than so-called ‘strategic’ interests in making decisions on regional and global relationships. Let us as neighbours hope that Prime Minister Modi’s policy moves in this direction.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 26th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (18)

  • Abdulla
    May 26, 2014 - 2:17AM

    Meanwhile we have strained relations with the whole world.

    It is a delusion we have that India has strained relations with its neighbhours. May be India does, but all these South Asian countries have economically beneficial and much more functional relationship with India.

    We need to put our internal house in order. hope sanity prevails and we avoid confrontation with India.


  • May 26, 2014 - 4:01AM

    Composite dialogue in 1997 and then Mushy’s famous Kargil misadventure in 1999. Don’t worry about Modi’s Foreign Policy, think of your first and try to get out of Stone Age.


  • Gp65
    May 26, 2014 - 4:49AM

    Do you even read what you write? pakistan can complain that the composite dialog started in 1997 has yielded few results?

    Do you remember Kargill?
    Do you remember parliament attack on India?
    Do you remember 26/11?
    Do you remember the beheading of our soldiers?

    Despite this India has continued to honor the Indus Water treaty and yet it is accused of stealing Pakistan’s waters. India has iven MFN status to Pakistan in 1996 which is yet to be reciprocated. Recent isa liberalisations including visa on. Arrial for Senior citizens was implemented by India but not Pakistan. If your expectation is that India should simply hand Kashmir over to you on a platter after ou have faiiled yo win it through wars and use of non-state-actors?


  • Np
    May 26, 2014 - 4:52AM

    Uninterruptible dialog means India should continue talking even as incidents like Kargill, parliament and 26/11 occur. Sorry ain’t going to happen. It is upto Pakistan to make the dialog uninterrupted by reining in its army and non-state actors.


  • harkol
    May 26, 2014 - 6:58AM

    India does not have strained relationship with its neighbours. It has ‘normal’ or friendly relationship with every country except Pakistan.

    Normal relationship doesn’t mean there are no areas of differences. As in any relationship these differences aren’t big enough to cause a huge rift or rupture. India has good relationships with Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Mauritious and Srilanka. With each there are some areas of concern, but they are all within the civil domain.

    India has many areas of difference with US, China too, but then again that’s normal!

    The only country with which India has a true problem is Pakistan – thus there is a conflict.


  • Bukhari
    May 26, 2014 - 8:56AM

    Personally, I think BJP sarkar will revive the relationship/talks between both countries, but on what points? I think, India should understand the fact that Hafiz Saeed is the man who don’t have any importance in Pakistani politics, Daud Ibrahim don’t live in Pakistan, Pakistani establishment/government had nothing to do with Mumbai attacks and there are many more. They should talk on real problems like Kashmir and Water distribution issues. And I must Pakistan should have clear stance on these issues.


  • Mega
    May 26, 2014 - 10:07AM

    “India’s strained relationship with all its neighbour” author which country developed nuclear weapons to compete with india except Pakistan in South Asia? Which country joined the arm race against india except Pakistan? None. So you see no country views us as threat or animosity except you. India’s shares religious link to nepal(Hinduism) and have a open border with them. That can tell you about how ok we are to each other’s citizen crossing each other border joining out schools or jobs. India Bhutan have excellent relationship. Sri lanka and india are natural brothers linked by Buddhism and Hinduism they have always put us first when it comes to foreign country priority so has Maldives. Govt of Bangladesh and india have excellent relationship. Except Pakistan no other country has enmity or threat perception towards us. Difference on certain issues yes, like every country has, but not enmity.
    “He will take steps to avoid antagonising western opinion” he cares less what the western world or any thinks only india and indians matter to him. You can see from his behaviour he responded all leaders tweet within hours with warm regards. But not reply to two times they tweeted. Only after new york times reported he’s ignored USA he later after four days tweeted a formal cryptic message. He has look east policy -japan,china,South Korea etc not USA or others on his list.Recommend

  • Anushka
    May 26, 2014 - 10:18AM

    @Bukari terror proofs have been given with phone conversation and live terrorist confession along with others proofs enough to nab them.
    “Kashmir issue” for kashmir issue you will have to first take back kashmir part sold to china, move your forces back from kashmir and hold plebiscite there if you are willing to do so. We are ready.
    “Water issue” there is no water issue, india is not foolish to invest thousand crores on dam project if it knows it will be wasted if charges are proven violating treaty norms in international court. We follow the treaty rules, if you have issues you can visit international court, as you can see you have lost all without stopping us from building it because we followed indus water treaty rules. Instead of conspiracies and fabricated theories, focus on water management and built dam your side to control your enormous water wastage blaming india for your inefficiency won’t help.


  • Isra Ghazal
    May 26, 2014 - 10:28AM

    I personally think that Modi must go for adopting a mid way approach towards resolving the regional disputes where both states; Pakistan and India must not be forced to make any compromise over their national security interest. There have had been efforts from Pakistan and India in developing or rejuvenating the relations but now this is the time to ripe and give the peace a refreshing start or chance. With the changing dynamics of international system, regional politics have also been shaped up, this is the time now when Modi have to take decisions in accordance with the changing contours of international politics where its main focus must be Pakistan. To maintain the regional strategic balance and peace both states must have to come at table.


  • Rabi
    May 26, 2014 - 10:35AM

    His Pakistan policy would also depend primarily on the nature of his mandate. Mr Modi has been India’s most controversial political leader for more than a decade and opinions on him are sharply divided. People label him either a “mass murderer” or a “development messiah” depending on the perspective from which they are evaluating Mr Modi. There is no denying that opinions on him are so polarised because of the Gujarat riots in 2002 when more than a thousand people were killed in horrific Hindu-Muslim clashes. With that spectre of Mr Modi, a question has been uppermost in the minds of most: What will be Mr Modi’s foreign policy in regard to India’s neighbours and specifically Pakistan. Will he be as hard-nosed and vitriol-dripping as he has been in the past? During the Kargil conflict in 1999, Mr Modi was asked in a TV show how India should respond to provocations from Islamabad. His answer was: “Chicken biryani nahi, bullet ka jawab bomb se diya jayega”.


  • Vik Joshi
    May 26, 2014 - 11:19AM

    @Gp65: Yes indeed… I entirely agree with you. Actually the author is among the more “saner” heads in Pakistan (to be fair to him here a bit) … but clearly he cannot ruffle too many feathers in the relevant places hence his probably reticence to mention all this. The fact is that for India the relevant “K” word is no longer Kashmir, but is Kargil. Things like that (and subsequent events as you have listed) are simply too fresh in memory to be just wished away


  • Shereha
    May 26, 2014 - 11:47AM

    It is of no doubt that ‘Composite Dialogue’ is a need o time. If this new government in India really marked to have an achievement than it should primarily focus to establish good channels of diplomacy with Pakistan. The reason is these both are the nuclear weapons states and any small event can trigger the highest border tensions on each of the side. The political administration of India has to make a distinction between the political and military spheres. Military is always on the move to fight a war as they meant to. On the other hand, it is duty on civil administration to settle issues without using force. We should not forget the retaliatory tendencies which can give a tough time to not only these two neighbors but for whole world.


  • Muneer
    May 26, 2014 - 1:03PM

    1.The visit of Nawaz  Sharif to India has handed following advantages to Modi:- a)Helped Modi to wash off the pariah status, as Nawaz Sharif has white washed his status of being,’extremist’, by visiting on his swearing in ceremony without any tangible reciprocity.b)Modi is most likely to use the occassion to put forth his grievances on issues of terrorism,insurgencies in India,liberation struggle of Kashmir, utilisation of water resources and Afghanistan in soft/milder terms directly to the PM of Pakistan.c)In case Modi falters in his internal agenda,he is likely to utilise the same visit and conversation there in, to his domestic,political and foriegn policy advantage in a very big way.d)Timings of the visit/ meeting are such (just after swearing in ceremony of the PM) that no one will blame Modi for absence of any due reciprocity.Even any promise made  now and left unfulfilled later will not be blameworthy on Modi in future because of the timings of the visit and his understandable lack of complete familarity with the issue at this point in time.  2. Will Nawaz Sharif advantage of showing positivity to the Indian request will put pressure on Modi/ India to reciprocate,is thus a moot point and depends on individual assessment of the Indian Policy.The advantage of the visit as a ‘talking point ‘,is however, likely to remain.       


  • joy
    May 26, 2014 - 2:52PM

    Reading op-eds by former Pakistani foreign secretaries in this newspaper makes me wonder, what exactly are they thinking while writing these columns.


  • Menon
    May 26, 2014 - 5:09PM

    “Regionally, relations with Pakistan are the most consequential not only because both countries are nuclear weapon powers”.

    Can anyone in Pakistan write a sentence without quoting “Pakistan has nuclear weapons”. In the modern world order, anyone using nuclear weapons against another country will be blown beyond outer space.

    All these damn Pakistani military junta writers don’t understand diplomacy without saber rattling. History teaches us that, “there is always someone with bigger dagger than yours”.

    Pakistan’s military is the only sector that has benefitted from saber rattling.

    When was the last time India attacked Pakistan unilaterally? Can you say the same about Pakistan.

    No one is scared of your nukes because if you use it Pakistan will cease to exist. Your biggest worry should be someone getting hold of it using it and the world punishing Pakistan for nuclear use.


  • G. Din
    May 26, 2014 - 5:29PM

    @Isra Ghazal:
    ” With the changing dynamics of international system, regional politics have also been shaped up, this is the time now when Modi have to take decisions in accordance with the changing contours of international politics where its main focus must be Pakistan.”
    Pakistan is a very minor blip on India’s radar screen. It will not only remain so but is likely to minimize even further given what you are doing to yourselves.
    ” To maintain the regional strategic balance and peace both states must have to come at table.”
    Your equating India and Pakistan is a transparently pathetic. hilarious attempt to reassure yourself that you really matter. Now, past 66 years, it was expected that you would be cured of that delusion. But, alas!


  • Jag KR
    May 27, 2014 - 12:50PM

    Leave everything aside… Let India and Pakistan do a joint military operation against extremists everywhere in the region. Lets get rid of them forever. Once India and Pakistan’s militaries become one, no other force in the world can influence the South Asian region and we are sure be superpower like the EU in a short time. India and Pakistan will not need any western powers interfering in their affairs. And what Kashmir Issue… there is a Line of Control – regularize that, and its over. Once extremists are finished anyway even that LoC will not matter and it will be free movement like the India – Nepal border currently.


  • Avtar
    May 28, 2014 - 6:53AM

    You must be reading something else. Pakistan does not have good relations with adjoining Islamic republics – leave aside the world. Instead of wishy-washy responses under Congress government to Pakistani military adventurism, expect a bit more decisive response from now on. Hope the Pakistani military or its proxies do not try to do something fancy!


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