23-29 May 2014 #708

Modi foreign policy

Shyam Saran
Even though there has been a broad political consensus over the major tenets of India's foreign policy across successive governments in the past, the assumption on May 26 of a BJP-led government in India will have some visible impact on external relations, precisely because of the prospects of a strong government at the centre and a decisive and charismatic leader at its head.

Narendra Damodardas Modi, Prime Minister-designate of India in the elections of May 26, will have more room for manoeuvre and will be less subject to pressures from coalition partners and opposition parties than his recent predecessors.

We already have some indication of his foreign policy priorities. Invitations have been extended to all leaders of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the new government. This reflects the importance that will be accorded to India's immediate neighbourhood and Modi's intention to engage with South Asian leaders without delay.

This augurs well for the region, particularly if the new government in Delhi is able to push through an active and ambitious agenda for regional economic integration. If the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, is able to overcome domestic opposition and avail of Modi's invitation, India-Pakistan relations could well see a fresh opening.

Both leaders are known to be advocates of increased economic and commercial exchanges between the two countries. The hurdle will continue to be the reluctance on the part of Pakistan to abandon cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Similar and positive opportunities in the past have been disrupted as a result of serious terrorist attacks by elements based in Pakistan, tolerated and often sponsored by the state.

The forthcoming political and security transitions in Afghanistan, including a resurgence in Taliban-led hostilities, may sharpen tensions between India and Pakistan. It appears likely that despite the risks to its own internal security, Pakistan may well support the Taliban, who have enjoyed sanctuaries on its territory for several years, in a bid to recapture power in Kabul. This will confront the countries of the region with a renewed threat of religious extremism and jihadi terrorism and India may be a major target.

Just when peace sentiments are in the air, there was a terrorist attack on May 23 against the Indian consulate at Herat in western Afghanistan. India and Pakistan must work together to prevent political instability and armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Modi has been impressed by China's spectacular economic growth and its pursuit of what it calls 'comprehensive national power'. We will witness a renewed focus in India to putting the country back on a high growth track and foreign policy will have a distinct economic focus. While there will continue to be wariness about China in the security field, closer economic and trade relations with that country would be pursued as contributing to India's development prospects.

The same motivation may drive a much closer relationship with Japan, which has already become a significant source of capital and modern technology. It is likely that Japan will be one of the first countries Modi will visit after taking office.

It will be interesting to watch the trajectory that India-US relations will take after a Modi government is installed in Delhi. On the US side, there will be a need to repair the damage done by an earlier decision (in 2005) to deny a visa to Modi on account of charges of complicity in the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002. More recently, some top US business corporations have spear-headed a hostile campaign against Indian policies on corporate taxation, intellectual property rights and regulatory measures.

India is reluctant to join US sanctions against Iran, and now against Russia. There is also no clarity as to how the US will handle the post-2014 situation in Afghanistan and how much India's interests and concerns will figure in US calculations.

Despite these differences, India and the US share important, long-term interests, in particular, the management of the rise of China and shaping the emerging security and economic architecture in the Indo-Pacific region.

A turnaround in the Indian economy will also create major opportunities for US business and industry at a time when US economic recovery continues to be weak. India has also emerged as a major market for US defence hardware and this is likely to expand in the coming years. Therefore, there is every reason for them to seek to revive the flagging relationship.

An economically vibrant India, with a politically focused and coherent leadership, will be a more influential actor in regional and global fora. Modi will soon be attending the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit and may go to the UN General Assembly later in the year. His participation in these fora will be watched with keen interest precisely because India's voice, having become somewhat muted in the recent past, will once again be heard with attention.

There is a growing awareness in India that the old divisions between domestic and external are becoming increasingly blurred. What happens beyond India's borders impacts on the country's internal security and economic prospects. Similarly, developments within India have an impact in the region as well as globally.

Therefore, India's foreign policy must ensure India's continual and high level engagement with its neighbourhood, the wider region and the world. We are likely to see steps in that direction early on in Modi's tenure.

Shyam Saran, India's former Foreign Secretary and currently Chairman of the National Security Advisor Board

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