Wednesday, May 07, 2014

How will India’s foreign policy be affected if Modi becomes India’s next PM?

The results of the ongoing general elections in India are due to be out on 16th May 2014. However, one cannot escape the inevitability of BJP’s Narendra Modi forming the next Government at the centre. This article is a humble effort to try and analyse the possible implications for India’s foreign policy if Narendra Modi becomes India’s Prime Minister.

Would India’s clout in global forums rise with Modi as PM?
Narendra Modi has already been hailed as someone who can woo foreign investment. Perhaps, Narendra Modi as PM might enable better relations with major countries, especially those that are seeking to invest in India. Notable amongst such countries would be the United Kingdom (UK), which has already expressed interest in investing in Mumbai-Bangalore corridor1. Perhaps, Modi as Prime Minister would herald an era when India is looked up to as a great investment destination, a country that welcomes and protects overseas investments2. Maybe India’s standing in G-20 will increase and with increased economic clout, maybe India would also gain diplomatic clout. Such a reading, or thinking, would suggest that Narendra Modi as PM would be beneficial for furthering of India’s foreign policy objectives. Note, the above optimistic reading is based on the crucial assumption that a Narendra Modi-led NDA Government would be more effective and efficient, in so far as creating suitable ‘business environment’ is concerned, as compared to the Congress-led UPA Government.

Even if we assume that Narendra Modi as PM would indeed elevate India’s economy and her relative importance for the world, nevertheless, it remains doubtful whether Narendra Modi as the face of India would be beneficial for India’s many of the foreign policy objectives.

Problems of perceptions: Modi as PM might dampen relations with Muslim-majority countries
Even if we assume that Narendra Modi had no role to play for whatever happened in Gujarat in 2002, it still cannot be denied that he carries that baggage. Whether Modi is being targeted unjustly or not could be debated. However, the more important thing is that the world perceives the man to have been at the helm when the riots (or “genocide”) occurred. International agencies like Amnesty International, who often possess the remarkable ability to dictate the international media’s (read Western media’s) perception of a person or a Government, have already been quite critical of Narendra Modi3. It is not difficult to envisage a situation where newspapers in some parts of the globe (besides Pakistan) carry headlines that the “Butcher of Gujarat elected as India’s next PM”. In no way do I seek to suggest that such a headline would necessarily be a correct or just portrayal. Nevertheless, it does pose problems of perception. Especially, how would the Muslim world react?

Even if we assume Governments to be pragmatic and expect no change in their desired stance vis-à-vis India, however we cannot assume the same for the general population in Muslim countries. It is reasonable to assume that Governments in some Muslim-majority countries might find it difficult to increase strategic cooperation with India. This question would become pertinent in case of Iran (with whom India has envisaged the “North South corridor”) and Afghanistan4 (which is slated to bid farewell to NATO troops in 2014). Moreover, any Government in Pakistan might find it difficult to reach any compromise(s) or peace deal with India, if the Indian PM is perceived as being a “hawk” and/or responsible for deaths of Muslims in 2002.

Why we cannot ignore many of the Muslim-majority countries

It is not my intent to repeat the well known facts about Indian expatriates in the Persian Gulf or the economic clout of Arab countries to emphasize on my point. Rather I would refer to two specific instances to make my case.

India needs to maintain cordial relations with a number of Muslim-majority countries for its own security and economic needs
First, I would like to draw attention to a potential diplomatic crisis for India, which thankfully never happened. In 1994, Pakistan was set to take India to UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Commission) over violations in Kashmir. The plan was to table a resolution condemning India, with Pakistan being the prime mover and having the support of the 54-country strong OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference). Retired diplomat MK Bhadrakumar explains that there was high probability of the UNHRC adopting the draft resolution (condemning India) if it was tabled5. More worryingly, that could have paved the way for reopening of the Kashmir issue in the UNSC (United Nations Security Council). Remember, it was 1994, the Soviet Union had just broken up and Russia was looking weak and unsure. Consequently, India could not be assured of a Russian veto if ever the Kashmir issue came up to UNSC. Therefore, it became imperative to kill the draft resolution in the UNHRC itself.

It was at that time that India turned to Iran. India’s then Foreign Minister himself went to Tehran to deliver a letter from Prime Minister Narsimha Rao to Iran’s President Rafsanjani, asking Iran’s intervention to block/derail the draft resolution at the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Conference). Iran acquiesced and reportedly blocked the draft resolution. The resolution was never tabled at the UNHRC and Pakistan since then has largely abandoned efforts to bring the Kashmir issue into the UN. It is difficult to imagine if the Government of a Muslim-majority country (like Iran) would find it possible to again cooperate with India given Modi’s negative image problem.

The second instance that merits revision is the alliance India had with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance in late-1990s (in their war against the Pakistan-backed Taliban)6. It is obvious that India had to support the Northern Alliance as Pakistan was on the other side. However, it should not obscure the fact that supporting the Northern Alliance was also vital to India’s security interests. It is in India’s interest to prevent Afghanistan from turning into a base/safe-haven for extremist groups who are intent on spreading terrorism in India. Of course, many of BJP’s committed supporters are unlikely to be aware of the divisions within Afghanistan and that a substantial part of the militias are strongly anti-Pakistan. In fact, when the legendary Commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated in September 2001, the weeping crowds chanted “Death to Pakistan” in his funeral procession7. Indians need to be aware that we have old and potential allies in the so-called “Muslim world”, vital for India’s security needs. Unfortunately a pervasive hatred for Muslims (as is harboured by many of BJP’s committed supporters) would only hurt India’s interests. The issue of Afghanistan becomes all the more pertinent as the US (and the NATO) is set to withdraw combat troops from the country this year and as the Taliban steadily continues to regain strength, setting the stage for a possible re-emergence of civil war in Afghanistan.

On the positive side, Modi as PM could have the chance to make progress on Indo-Pak peace
At this point it might be useful to recall the similar case of Israel’s strongman-turned-PM Ariel Sharon. As Defence Minister in 1982, Sharon gained notoriety for having allegedly overseen and abetted the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon. Expectedly, among a few sections in Israel, Ariel Sharon was hailed as a hero and he built a reputation of a strongman. He eventually entered politics and made a series of provocative acts against Palestinians (most notable being his visit to Temple Mount in September 2000 while he was in opposition, which was one of the main events leading to armed uprising by Palestinians). Ariel Sharon in Israel was supported by those who favoured a ‘tough’ policy with the Palestinians. Eventually, Sharon won elections and became the Prime Minister in March 2001.

Yet, for all his reputation of being a ‘strongman’, what Ariel Sharon could do was something the Left-leaning and ‘Labour’ Prime Ministers could not. He, as Prime Minister, agreed to vacate Gaza in 2005 and hand it over to Palestinians, dismantling all the Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip8. Unfortunately, this concession by Sharon has been inadequate to achieve lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. Nevertheless, the reasons for lack of peace are an entirely different subject matter altogether and not the focus of this article. The important point to be noted is that Sharon as Prime Minister could give significant concessions (and hence further the peace process), without having to worry about anybody branding him “weak”.

Similarly, Narendra Modi has already established his image of a “strongman”, of a “loh-purush” (man of steel). Therefore, he might find it easy to make compromises and enter into a peace-deal with Pakistan. However of course, a lot would depend on Pakistan’s ability to reciprocate.

Thus, the prospect of Narendra Modi becoming the next PM raises concerns that India’s strategic partnership with a number of Muslim-majority countries might be hampered. However, his credentials as a “strongman” might give him some leeway in accommodating Pakistan and hence help in furthering the peace process. Obviously, only time will tell whether or not India’s geopolitical interests are furthered under Modi as PM.

1 Refer to The Hindu, (December 25, 2013) “Linking India’s financial centre with its IT hub”
2 The BJP’s election manifesto accuses the UPA government of having unleashed "tax terrorism" and "uncertainty", an apparent reference to the Vodafone tax issue and the GARR (General-Anti-Avoidance-Rule). It seems BJP would be keen to avoid any similar episode of retroactive taxation when in power.
3 Refer to Amnesty International’s statement in 2012 where it hints at Modi’s possible involvement in 2002 riots but also mentions about lack of any evidence
4 Refer to Time (April 2011), Afghanistan: India's Uncertain Road for an understanding of India-Pakistan rivalry playing out in Afghanistan,9171,2062364-2,00.html
5 Refer to Rediff (October 2005), “Revealed: What Iran did for India and why it is hurt” Also refer to Frontline (April 2002), “An Iranian sister”
6 Refer to Sumit Ganguly (January 2012), India’s Role in Afghanistan, CIDOB Policy Research Project, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs
7 Refer to BBC (September 2001), “Thousands mourn anti-Taleban leader”
8 Refer to Washington Post (August 2005), “Israeli Withdrawal From Gaza Explained”

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Friday, August 17, 2012

India trying to mend ties with Iran??

What happens when an irresistible force meets some old object which harbours notions of its own glory and grandiose and stubbornly refuses to move? The answer is Libya 2011. What happens when the seemingly irresistible force meets a more difficult object to move? The answer is Syria 2012 – a Syria supported by Iran. And lastly, what happens when a cautious player tries to balance its interests between the irresistible force and the formidable object? The answer is India of recent times. In this post, I focus on recent developments in the Middle East, especially over Iran and India’s response to the unfolding diplomatic ‘tensions’ over Iran. On the whole, recent developments suggest that the Indian Government might have decided to mend ties with Iran after having earlier curtailed business and political relations under US pressure.

The Big News: PM Manmohan Singh to visit Iran on August 28th
Yes, you read it right! Manmohan Singh is indeed visiting Iran on August 28th to attend the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. This would be the first trip by an Indian Prime Minister to Iran in over a decade after Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit in 2001. Manmohan Singh’s visit to Iran comes in the backdrop of unrelenting US campaign to isolate Iran diplomatically for its alleged incompliance with international law. India has been a special target of the US Administration in its quest to seek complete diplomatic isolation of Iran.

Recap: US efforts to enlist India in its diplomatic confrontation with Iran
India has traditionally been an important buyer of oil from Iran (around 13% of Iran’s oil imports went to India, prior to the escalation of the current round of sanctions against Iran). India has always enunciated that it abides by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, but does not feel compelled to heed to unilateral sanctions by the US or the European Union (EU). [Nevertheless, it remains a completely different matter as to how much justified or ‘legal’ are the current UNSC resolutions against Iran] Consequently, India initially refrained from reducing oil imports from Iran, as UNSC resolutions did not demand so.

USA was visibly surprised and incensed at India’s refusal to join US efforts to isolate Iran. Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns (who served in the Bush Administration) rebuked India’s inaction over Iran and criticized India’s decision to continue to import oil from Iran. [Refer to Burns’ article:] Burns wrote that India’s refusal to join the US efforts was like a “slap in the face” for US by an ungrateful India, which had received the nuclear deal from the Bush Government. [Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that even by that time India had already displayed some sensitivity to American demands, especially when the Reserve Bank of India scrapped the long-standing ACU mechanism in December 2010, thereby jeopardising oil trade with Iran]

Next came US current Secy. of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India in early May 2012. The trip began somewhat unusually, with Clinton landing in Kolkata (instead of New Delhi), in order to meet West Bengal’s new Chief Minister who had recently overthrown 34 years of Communist rule in the state. While the landing in Kolkata might have been a bit unusual, however her demands in New Delhi were very predictable – she wanted India to maintain distance from Iran and cut oil imports from the country. [Refer to BBC report “Clinton urges India to buy less oil from Iran”]

Recap (cont.): India slowly begins to downgrade commercial ties with Iran
A week after Hillary Clinton left India, the Government announced in the Parliament that it would indeed reduce oil imports from Iran by 11% in the year 2012-13. [Refer to NDTV’s report]

Thereafter, the Indian Government took a series of steps which indicated that India had finally given up on its efforts to preserve ties with Iran and seemed increasingly poised to join the Western campaign to isolate Iran. The European Union enforced new sanctions on July 1, 2012 and prohibit EU-area companies from insuring ships carrying Iranian oil. Consequently, Iran’s oil imports globally became endangered as most of the tanker insurance companies were European. In response, the Japanese Government quickly declared sovereign guarantee for ships importing oil from Iran to Japan in order to ensure steady supply of oil in the country (which happens to be an US ally with US military on its soil).

However, the Indian Government struggled to come up with a plan to ensure oil imports from Iran. At that time, the Indian Government refused to declare a Japan-style sovereign guarantee for ships carrying Iranian oil. Consequently, Indian shipping companies did not want to import crude oil from Iran. Subsequently, Iran offered to send oil to India through its own ships. However, India then banned Iranian ships from entering India waters, citing US sanctions. [Refer to The Hindu report “India bans U.S.-sanctioned Iranian ships from its waters”] Thus, the Indian Government was in effect saying that it would neither provide insurance to Indian ships importing oil from Iran, nor would it allow Iran to itself deliver oil to India. Meanwhile, the Shipping Corp. of India said that its joint-venture with the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL) will end as US sanctions against IRISL hampered the JV’s ability to operate. [Refer to]

Thus we saw a gradual but steady reduction in commercial ties with Iran. Many a times it seemed that the Indian Government itself was not interested in finding ways around US sanctions to ensure continued oil imports from Iran.

In the meantime, the Middle East witnessed an escalation in violence in Syria and increasing diplomatic isolation of Bashar Al Assad’s Government. This was a major blow to Iran as the Assad Government in Syria remained one of the last few allies that Iran had in the Middle East region. Meanwhile, Libya-style efforts were underway to overthrow Assad’s Government in Syria. Consequently, the NATO powers formed their “Friends of Syria Group” (FOSG) in February 2012, in a meeting in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also amongst the seventy-odd FOSG countries, seeking to promote freedom and democracy in Syria. It is important to note that Iran was not invited to the FOSG despite being a large country in the neighbourhood. In fact, the US has steadfastly opposed any Iranian involvement in a possible diplomatic deal on Syria, and has instead termed Iran as part of the problem. Nevertheless, the UN envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan (who has subsequently resigned from his role) recognised Iran’s tremendous influence in Syria and repeatedly called for Iran to be part of any diplomatic solution on Iran. [Refer to “Syria Crisis Solution Must Include Iran, Kofi Annan Says”] However, the US dismissed such suggestions.

Turnaround: India sends representative to Iran for meeting on Syria
Fighting continues to intensify in Syria, with reports suggesting that rebels are receiving material support from Gulf countries (mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and the Government is in turn receiving support from Iran. In the midst of all this, Iran decided to host its own meeting on Syria. And it was then that India decided that it was time to show some independence in foreign policy. So India sent a mid-level diplomat Rajeev Shahare, joint secretary in the West Asia North Africa (WANA) division of the MEA, to Tehran. [Refer to] The meeting was attended by thirty odd countries including Russia, China and Pakistan. Obviously, the Western powers and the Gulf monarchies were not invited and most likely they would have turned down any invitation.

It must be conceded that the meeting was not a grand meeting as most of the representatives of the thirty countries were below the Ministerial level. However, Iran’s ability to host such a meeting in the face of intense diplomatic and commercial boycott by the US and EU is in itself no small feat. Moreover, even the United Nations took note of Iran’s efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis. UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon wrote “I thank the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran for hosting this consultative meeting on Syria at this critical stage.” [Refer to]

India followed up on its moral support to Iran’s diplomatic initiative by finally accepting Iran’s invitation to PM Manmohan Singh to attend the NAM summit on August 28th. It remains to be seen how far India’s new rapprochement with Iran goes. Nevertheless, one thing is clear, Iran is not yet diplomatically as isolated as Washington would have wanted.

Update: First oil tanker set to bring Iranian crude oil to India with Indian insurance cover
In a minor positive step towards ironing out of difficulties in Iran-India trade, India finally decided to provide little insurance ($50 million, compared to $1 billion what European insurers used to provide) to ships importing Iranian oil. [Refer to]