When Narendra Modi took over as prime minister, it was in front of an international audience. He was the first Indian leader to invite the heads of all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) states to his swearing-in. Even then, Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif attended, and with personalised gifts galore for each other’s mothers, Modi’s Sabka Vikaas, Sabka Saath started on the right foot.
Over the next five years, the foot has stumbled often, specially in the neighbourhood, though it found firm ground on distant and new lands. Modi’s signature hug embraced a host of global leaders, forging friendships that were tested within his tenure itself. In the overall assessment, while Modi’s foreign policy report card may be a mixed bag, he has scored several A pluses, and earned a special mention for his brand of personalised diplomacy.
The first such instance of personalised diplomacy was when he decided to invite then US president Barack Obama as chief guest for the Republic Day parade in 2015. Modi had already had a rockstar visit to the US, a country that had denied him a visa in the past for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Obama accepted with alacrity, becoming the first US president to grace the parade. A friendship forged over several bear hugs was tested soon enough when there seemed to be a deadlock at the Paris climate summit in November 2015.
Modi, by then, had included then French president Francois Hollande in his list of best friends. Hollande was keen the summit be a success, friend Barack called Modi and India stepped back from its position on historical liability with regard to climate change. In return, India got US and French backing for the International Solar Alliance (ISA) that Modi had proposed.
The ISA, incidentally, is the first multilateral treaty-based organisation to have a secretariat in India.
One has to grant it to Modi that he managed to develop good ties with Obama’s successor, the maverick Donald Trump. In Fear: Trump in the White House, a book on Trump’s presidency by Bob Woodward, the author quotes Trump as saying he liked Modi.
Modi’s friendship with Hollande, too, eased into a comfortable equation with his successor Emmanuel Macron; both made state visits to India. However, the French romance is not entirely smelling of roses. Modi’s seemingly impromptu decision to announce the order of 36 ready-to-fly Rafale jets while on a visit to Paris in 2015 has haunted him throughout his tenure, with opposition allegations of scams continuing, despite assurances from the Indian Air Force as well as decisions by the Supreme Court.
The Rafale controversy, however, is a matter for internal consumption. On the global stage, the French displayed their friendship and solidarity with India as recently as a few days ago, when they moved a motion to proscribe terrorist Masood Azhar in the United Nations Security Council. The motion was stonewalled by a Chinese veto, as expected. But the initiative showed that France, with the backing of the US, was firmly on the Indian side, and China, actually, stood out alone.
With this, we move to China, a relationship that has stumbled, tottered, endured a standoff, and yet, somehow remained on talking terms. The relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping began well enough, with an elaborate state visit and Modi receiving him personally and then taking him to the banks of the Sabarmati for a swing on a Gujarati jhoola. But then happened the standoff at Doklam in 2017 when Chinese and Indian soldiers stood, eye to eye, near the tri-junction with Bhutan. The Chinese were reportedly extending their road-making activities into a disputed region, which Bhutan, India’s protectorate, claims as its own. There is a status quo being maintained in the region, which China appeared to be violating. The standoff lasted months and threatened to jeopardise peace in the region, much to the consternation of the global community.
It took a lot of heavy diplomacy with foreign secretary S. Jaishankar (an old China hand) as well as the current one, Vijay Gokhale (then India’s envoy in Beijing), working to defuse the situation. The jury is out on whether the status quo has changed, but the undeniable fact is that the tension was resolved without a single bullet being fired. The Astana Consensus between Modi and Jinping, days ahead of Doklam, when they agreed not to let their differences escalate into disputes, helped. The Wuhan summit in 2018 further helped in bringing the bilateral relationship back on track, though with China, the differences continue to be many.
While Modi may have played drums in Japan and had rockstar welcomes in the US and UK, one of the hallmarks of his tenure has been his success in wooing the Middle East. The fresh injection of personalised diplomacy in relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia is notable. India was able to have Christian Michel and Rajiv Saxena extradited in connection with the AgustaWestland helicopter case.
The friendship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman proved useful in the post-Balakot scenario. A bit of help in returning a fleeing princess back to the UAE and a diplomatic silence regarding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi helped.
Modi also successfully de-hyphenated Israel and Palestine, and became the first prime minister to visit both Jerusalem and Ramallah.
In the glitzy state visits during the last five years, it became amply clear who was not a BFF. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s rockstar prime minister, received only a tepid response, formalities extending only as far as protocol entailed. The frostiness over Canada’s soft corner to the Khalistan sympathisers was clear.
The neighbourhood has been Modi’s problem area, despite all his initial efforts to woo countries in the region. While Bhutan didn’t say much during the Doklam standoff, it was obviously not comfortable being sandwiched in this battle of wits between the dragon and the elephant.
Nepal, which India had taken for granted, erupted in an embarrassing foreign policy disaster when India sent the terse Jaishankar to Kathmandu to express Modi’s displeasure with its newly drafted constitution, which appeared imbalanced from the view of the Madhesis. Subsequently, there was a blockade of supplies across the border, causing a bleak winter for the Himalayan nation, already battered by a massive earthquake. Who created the blockade is another matter for debate—the Madhesis or India.
What is not debatable is the ill will it caused towards India, which still rankles across Nepal even today. The help India extended during the earthquake was quickly forgotten, every Nepali still has a memory of a kitchen fire that didn’t light because there was no gas or a motorcycle that stood in a queue all night, waiting for a few drops of petrol. K.P. Oli has returned to power and the relationship seems better now than before, but the scars still haven’t filled up.
The situation in Maldives, which had gone out of India’s grasp, improved without much effort, with the Maldives voting in a new regime, that is pro-India. Modi was the only head of state to be invited to President Mohamed Solih’s swearing-in.
Bangladesh emerged as the regional foreign policy success story, and with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina voted back to power, the situation has only improved. Sri Lanka had internal turmoil, where India was blamed for having plotted an assassination bid on President Maithripala Sirisena. The situation rectified itself, largely without any active intervention by India.
Pakistan, however, is a problem that refuses to get resolved. Despite the initial bonhomie between Modi and Sharif, it didn’t take long before the situation devolved into a mess. A lot of blood has been spilled, with massive attacks from Pakistan-based terrorists who attacked military camps in Uri, Pathankot and most recently,the CRPF convoy in Pulwama. Modi famously declared after Uri that blood and water cannot flow together, threatening to revisit the Indus Water Treaty, brokered by the World Bank, that has withstood several wars and hostilities. It has rattled Pakistan. But though India has a right to exploit the eastern rivers, it really hasn’t done much on it, despite Modi’s declaration.
With India’s famous surgical strikes and the Balakot attack, both described as “preventive, non-military actions”, India says there is a paradigm shift in its Pakistan policy. The Pakistan policy that the Modi sarkar has crystallised towards the end of its tenure is aggressive in a different way. It includes show of strength, capability and willingness to act proactively. It means reaching out to friends across the world and getting the pressure on Pakistan through them. It means noting down every action that Pakistan takes or doesn’t, and presenting it before the world.
India is reaching out to Iran and Afghanistan, countries that also assert that they suffer from Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. The Chabahar port project in Iran, providing an alternate route to Afghanistan, is a diplomatic and strategic achievement.
And Modi’s big diplomatic success, wooing the Middle East, has paid dividends. India still got invited as guest at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation members’ meet in Abu Dhabi, despite Pakistan’s protests post-Balakot.
The problem, observers say, is India’s inconsistency regarding Pakistan. “We need to be firm, to stay the course,” says Vishnu Prakash, former spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs. “We should make it a point not to engage with Pakistan in any manner—Kartarpur or cricket, as long as it continues to sponsor terror.”
While most of the government’s diplomatic engagements have been noisy, chest-thumping affairs, in Myanmar, there has been a lot of quiet, but significant work. A $679 million line of credit to Myanmar, development of the Sitwe port and plans for a truck terminal and a microwave link for communications are the big projects. These apart, there is joint research in agriculture.
India was careful in handling the Rohingya exodus into Bangladesh, staying away from criticising Aung San Suu Kyi and the government. It however, made a clear distinction between refugees into Bangladesh and illegal Rohingya entries into India via Bangladesh, and did a token return of a few of them.
The Modi government was lucky to get entry into several multilateral clubs, though part of the groundwork was done by previous regimes. India entered the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It also gained membership in three of the four big nuclear clubs—Wassenaar Arrangement, Australia Group and Missile Technology Control Regime. Entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group remains elusive, and China was not the only country that didn’t support India. Clearly, there is still a lot of diplomacy left to accomplish.
While Modi drove the foreign policy agenda, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj carved out her own niche, with her Twitter handle overshadowing even Modi, who has more followers.
Despite her prolonged illness, Swaraj reached out to people in different corners of the world, arranging medical visas for a Pakistani patient and helping rescue Indians stranded abroad. In fact, she almost emerged as the patron saint of stranded Indians, as she helped bring back Gita and Uzma from Pakistan and Gurpreet from Germany. Her tweets were not just effective, but humorous, too. Once, when someone asked her whether it was safe to travel to Indonesia, or if there was a risk of a volcano eruption, she responded that she would consult the volcano and revert!