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”


Siddharth Kaushal said...

Hi dude. Interesting read. Wan't clear on Sharon's legacy, as well as the Kashmir issue in 1994.However, I am not convinced about the first 2 assertions. The first relates to India's relationship with Iran.I think India will maintain high goodwill with Iran. This reasoning is based on two points. The first being economic, India was the biggest importer of iranian oil , 2nd only to china in FY14. This becomes even more crucial given cuts in iranian oil imports globally over the last couple of years due to US pressure. The second reason is geopolitical. India and Iran are both interested in keeping the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan. Given that Iran shares a big border with Afghanistan, Iran would be happy with any influence that India can have on the matter.
Your second assertion deals with the inability of the BJP supporters to understand the political intricacies in muslim countries. Example cited of Afghanistan which has certain sections strongly against Pakistan. This is clearly an assumption with no empirical backing. In fact given India's historic position of supporting the Northern Alliance well documented, BJP leaders are bound to know Afghan politics. Its also hard to believe that they will not quickly grasp dynamics once in power. They have after all shown resourcefulness in running what seems to be a very successfully political campaign to come back to power in Delhi.
I do agree with the 3rd point on Narendra Modi having the leeway to make some concessions with Pakistan to resolve our long term disputes thanks to his "strongman" image in the country.

heena singh said...

This is nice article.
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