Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Rahul Roy-Chaudhury: India's new Modi government - what to expect on foreign and security policy - 20 June 2014



Rahul Roy-Chaudhury: India's new Modi government - what to expect on foreign and security policy

Date: 20 June 2014
By Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia

It has been little over a month since the landslide victory that swept Narendra Modi to power and so any analysis of his key foreign and security policy priorities can be based only on preliminary indicators. But, additionally, foreign policy issues can only be properly seen in the context of India’s new and changing domestic economic and political environment and its challenges. 

The domestic context

Firstly, it is important to note that this is the first time in 30 years that India has a prime minister who actually wanted to become prime minister. We saw this in Narendra Modi’s unprecedented nomination by his party, the centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as its prime ministerial candidate for this election, as well as in his presidential-style campaign in the world’s largest parliamentary elections. In contrast, India’s prime ministers in the last 30 years have either not been formally endorsed as prime ministerial candidates by their respective parties, or emerged as a ‘lowest common denominator’ of fractious coalition politics, or in some cases were even an ‘accident’.

But, why is this important? It matters simply for the fact that this will primarily be Narendra Modi’s government, not principally a BJP one.

My sense is that Prime Minister Modi’s personality and character will define India’s politics and policies in the next five years. We will not have seen this since Indira Gandhi’s premiership over 30 years ago. Modi’s style of functioning will also be very different from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s premiership of previous BJP-led governments.

While we have gradually begun to see Modi’s vision of India -expressed through the Indian President’s speech to the opening session of both houses of parliament on 9 June and Modi’s own maiden parliamentary speech two days later - we still await the full details and the small print. But, we are only in the fourth week of Modi’s five-year term. The budget session of parliament next month and next year’s budget in February 2015 will give us a better sense of how Modi seeks to implement his priorities. Nonetheless, we can be confident in Modi’s decisive electorate mandate – winning an absolute majority of 280 of the current 540 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, the first by any single party in 30 years – with the tally increasing to a total of 334 seats with partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition.

A second point to foreground is that New Delhi is not Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister for nearly 13 years. In India’s federal structure, Modi as chief minister of Gujarat had authoritative decision-making and implementation powers over law and order, police, health care, transport, land policies etc. But, as prime minister, he does not have executive decision-making powers over states, although he has the ability to influence through the disbursement of funds. This will be a challenge for Modi in two ways.

Firstly, a total of 20 of India’s 29 states are run by non-BJP/non-NDA coalition partners. The BJP has chief ministers in only five states, with no chief minister in India’s five largest states. Prospective state assembly elections in five states, including Maharashtra and Haryana, by early 2015, are expected to result in additional BJP-run states. Yet, there will remain powerful non-BJP regional parties in Uttar Pradesh, Tamilnadu and West Bengal.

Secondly, while Modi has a majority in the Lok Sabha, this is not the case in the upper house of parliament, the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP has only 46 of the 250 seats - increasing to 59 with the NDA but well short of the half-way mark. A majority in the Rajya Sabha is essential to ensure the smooth passage of key legislation. Also, a two-third majority is required in both houses of parliament to ensure constitutional amendments including the introduction, for example, of the crucial Goods and Services Tax (GST), the absence of which results in the description of India being ‘one country but many markets’.

Although the Modi government’s legislative agenda may perhaps not be required to be implemented for the next 8-12 months, it will still need to ensure additional seats in the Rajya Sabha. This could well take place in the next two years after winning several state assembly elections. But, Modi would still need to reach out to non-BJP and regional parties outside the NDA to ensure his priorities of economic development and good governance. While he has talked of ‘cooperative federalism’, it remains to be seen how this will be implemented.

What is crucial to consider is that the key to the success of Modi’s government lies in three things - implementation, implementation and implementation. India’s problems are well known. There is no need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ on forming cabinet committees or high-level task forces to find out what they are.

Economic development and domestic governance are the clear priorities, including food inflation, with onion prices rising to over 40 rupees a kilogramme; creation of jobs, with 11-12 million new jobs required every year for a fast-growing largely young population; and investment for infrastructure development. In Modi’s parliament speech he provided the grand vision of ‘pucca’ houses – built with reinforced cement concrete – for all Indians, along with basic amenities of water, power and sanitation, all within eight years (in time for India’s 75th anniversary of independence). Elsewhere, his government has spoken of building 100 new cities. These are huge undertakings. Can these be effectively implemented, when expectations on all this are so unrealistically high?

Modi will not find it easy to immediately raise India’s GDP in 2014-15 beyond the expected 5.4% from less than 5% the past two years. This will require at least 24 months before we can expect significant change. While BJP officials in Delhi are talking about the ‘lost decade’ of Congress-led rule, raising growth levels to 7-8% will not be easy, especially in terms of the pressures on the global economy and energy supplies. This may well be accentuated by a further rise in oil prices due to the current crisis in Iraq, from where India imports much of its oil requirement, as well as the possibility of week monsoonal rains over India this season.

Foreign and security policy

Clearly, to ensure that India’s development and governance priorities are met, the first fundamental or strategic goal of India’s foreign policy will be to seek a stable, secure and peaceful neighbourhood. The attempt to build better relations with India’s neighbours and near neighbours is expected to continue, and the Modi government has clearly indicated this.

At the same time, a second strategic goal of foreign policy – to ensure that India has independence of thought and action on strategic issues – will also continue. Although we may hear less of ‘non-alignment’ and ‘strategic autonomy’, the former will still be useful to generate votes on multilateral issues and the latter will prevent India’s participation in any military alliance against any other country or grouping.

As an aspect of this ‘continuity’ in India’s foreign policy, it is not surprising that Modi’s government now fully supports the India–US civil nuclear cooperation agreement, rather than opposing it as it did while out of power. Indeed, it now officially seeks the operationalisation of international civil nuclear agreements and the development of nuclear power projects for civilian purposes. 

Yet, key ‘tactical’ issues of how exactly regional peace, stability and security are to be attained, and to what extent India is likely to play a role in its ‘enlightened national interest’, as it has now been officially described, are likely to change.

Indeed, Prime Minister Modi has far less constraints to carry out such ‘tactical’ changes in foreign policy than he does on domestic issues. Modi’s decisive electorate mandate does not require dependence on complex coalition partnerships in foreign or security policy decision-making. As many as 39 of the 44 ministers of government are from the BJP; the BJP holds key cabinet and junior ministerial positions on external affairs, commerce, defence, and, of course, key appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Consequently, non-BJP regional influences on India’s neighbourhood policies are also expected to be less insistent than in the past few years.

Moreover, Modi is expected to lead on foreign policy issues. Contrary to popular perceptions that Modi has travelled only to the Asia–Pacific due to various travel restrictions imposed on him after the controversial Gujarat riots of 2002, he has travelled to over 40 countries as a General Secretary of the BJP and a Spokesman of the former BJP-led government.. These have included lengthy visits to the US and the UK.

Alongside, the new External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is expected to reassert the position of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in foreign policy decision-making after it has been sidelined by the PMO for nearly a decade. Reportedly, she was not Modi’s first choice as external affairs minister. But, as a former cabinet minister in the previous BJP-led government and former Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, she will be an influential member of the top decision-making body, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), unlike her two previous predecessors. The recent move to appoint a Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister, which would have essentially weakened her position, has reportedly been scuttled. 

The third member of Modi’s foreign and security policy team is the new national security advisor, Ajit Doval, a legendary former chief of India’s domestic intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau. Doval’s primary interests and strengths are counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, as well as the immediate neighbourhood. Doval’s appointment as NSA, rather than that of a retired diplomat as has generally been the case in the past, could well signal a tactical change in India’s neighbourhood relations. Doval will be the NSA in what is expected to become a more powerful PMO.

All this makes for a potentially stronger and bolder foreign policy for India, if and when Prime Minister Modi wishes it to be so. This holds tremendous new and exciting potential for the development and deepening of India’s strategic relationships in its neighbourhood and beyond in the Asia–Pacific and the Gulf region. There is expected to be a renewed emphasis on the G20, perhaps with Modi’s interest on economic and foreign investment issues.

Yet, all this will continue to be dependent on domestic events, external shocks and extreme challenges in an increasingly precarious neighbourhood. 

Unfortunately, India does not yet have a full-time defence minister, with finance minister Arun Jaitley currently holding additional charge of the defence ministry. A new defence minister is expected to be appointed in the next cabinet reshuffle. Other key appointments in the national security establishment are awaited.

External players

The Modi government’s priority towards neighbourhood relations was reflected by the unprecedented invitation to South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) heads of government – as well as Mauritius – for Modi’s ‘swearing-in’ ceremony on 26 May. Modi’s first foreign visit was to Bhutan and Sushma Swaraj will shortly be visiting Bangladesh.

Within the neighbourhood, India’s relationship with Pakistan will be key. The prospect of a normal and peaceful relationship with Pakistan would enhance regional stability and security. At the same time, bilateral tensions or potential confrontation would greatly disrupt this.

Although Pakistan was concerned over Modi’s election as prime minister, it felt that only a strong Indian government would have the political will and ability to seek peace and the normalisation of relations with Pakistan, somewhat similar to Prime Minister’s Vajpayee’s outreach to Pakistan after the 2001-02 border confrontation ensured a bilateral peace process. Whereas Vajpayee visited Pakistan twice in his five years as prime minister, Manmohan Singh did not visit Pakistan even once in his ten years at the helm. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was therefore bold in accepting Modi’s invitation to attend his swearing-in ceremony at very short notice.

With the invitation to Sharif, the BJP made it clear that its pre-electoral rhetoric opposing a meeting between the Indian and Pakistan prime ministers was no longer valid. Indeed, it was, ironically, the Congress party that opposed the first Modi-Sharif meeting on the grounds that talks and terror do not go together.

The first meeting between Modi and Sharif in Delhi the day after the swearing-in ceremony was not expected to be substantive. Yet, it is expected to shortly lead to a meeting of the two foreign secretaries in an attempt to resume the stalled bilateral dialogue. In a notable development, Sharif did not mention the Kashmir dispute in his press statement nor met with representatives of the separatist Kashmiri Hurriyat group in Delhi. At the same time, Pakistan’s reciprocal offer of the Non-Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA) to India has been postponed.

In a reminder of the worsening regional security environment, a terror attack on the Indian consulate-general in Herat, Afghanistan, took place on 22 May, four days before Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, which was fortunately foiled. If the terrorists had succeeded in holding the Indian consul-general and other diplomats as hostages, it would have had a hugely negative impact on regional security. Fortunately, the attack ended before any Indian diplomats were injured or killed, with all four terrorists killed by either Indian guards or Afghan security forces.

Interestingly, although Afghanistan’s President Karzai publicly stated that the India-targeting Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group was involved in the attack, there has been no official response on this from the Indian government. An Indian aid worker is currently being held hostage in Afghanistan.

During the Indian electoral campaign, there were strong anti-Pakistan comments from BJP candidates but not Modi. Yet, Modi has mentioned that talks and bombs could not go together, which could well mean that there could be a difference between talks and negotiations, the latter taking place only if there is no violence. This also appears to be linked to an effective ceasefire on the Line of Control in the disputed Kashmir region, the severe violations of which over the past two-and-a-half years have been blamed by both countries on each other.

Will Modi therefore make a bold and decisive ‘outreach’ to Pakistan like his predecessor Vajpayee, or will it be a series of confidence-building measures to ensure a minimal level of normalcy sufficient for the implementation of India’s domestic agenda? Can and will Sharif be in a position to deliver given his very serious domestic challenges? Will Modi appoint a new Special Envoy to Pakistan? For Modi and his national security establishment what does ‘zero tolerance against terrorism and extremism’, as declared in the President’s speech, actually mean? What will be the implications if there is another Mumbai-type attack by Pakistan-based militants?

Now, Modi’s first foreign policy challenge is currently emerging from an unexpected quarter – the events in Iraq – where 10,000 Indian expatriates are based and reportedly 40 Indian workers have been kidnapped. 

Afghanistan post-2014 is expected to provide another foreign policy challenge. Modi’s government will have to decide the nature and manner of Indian presence in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of NATO/ISAF combat forces at the end of this year. In a worst-case scenario, could there be any ‘red line’ on India’s policies, in terms of the existence of anti-Indian terror camps in Afghanistan? Will New Delhi see Afghanistan developments more through the prism of Pakistan than before? What would this mean? Alternatively, could India and Pakistan formally talk about Pakistan? Clearly, at this stage, there are clearly more questions than answers.

But, perhaps, the real foreign policy challenge for Modi will come from China.

In his electoral campaign, Modi talked tough on China, criticising its ‘mind-set of expansion’. China’s recent assertiveness on the Line of Actual Control, dividing the two countries, is expected to be a key element of his defence policy. This could lead to greater focus on the infrastructural development of the Indian northeast. Perhaps not surprisingly, therefore, a former army chief is the lead minister for this. A build-up of Indian naval forces and capability is also expected to take place, with acting defence minister Jaitley recently stating that maritime security is a top priority for the government. It was no coincidence that Modi’s first official visit outside Delhi last week was to go aboard India’s largest warship, the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya.

But, at the same time, Modi could seek greater Chinese investment into India, which has been blocked in the past for security reasons, including in Information Technology and ports. This could favourably influence Indian investment in China as well.

There are influential voices within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) arguing for Modi to ‘revisit’ India’s China policy in a harsher manner. In an unprecedented event, Tibet’s Prime Minister-in-exile Lobsang Sangay was in the official photograph at Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, along with the SAARC leaders. This would simply have been unthinkable in the previous UPA government. In this context, there continues to be tremendous expectations on Modi’s planned visit to Japan soon.

In terms of the US, Modi has publicly stated that relations should not be impacted on the basis of personality, having been denied a visa in 2005. He will be meeting President Obama in Washington in September during the visit to the UN General Assembly.

And in regards to the UK: Modi is India’s first prime minister to be born after independence. So the baggage of any colonial legacy will not be present.

There are several advantages the UK will have in its relations with Modi. These include the UK’s lead role in the EU ‘outreach’ to Modi as early as October 2012 when James Bevan, British High Commissioner to India, first met Modi, followed by the visit of Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Hugo Swire to Gujarat in March 2013; the lifting of the EU/UK travel ban on Modi; and the influence of the vibrant British Gujarati community which helped fund Modi’s electoral campaign.

Yet, the UK will be increasingly competing with the Modi government’s new and potentially emerging ‘strategic partners’, including Japan, Israel and Singapore, alongside the US, Russia and France. UK–India divisions on regional policy post-2014 Afghanistan could also sharpen.

Nonetheless, the opportunity for a UK-India ‘game changer’ in their relationship exists, but it will need to catch Modi’s imagination on economic, defence or security issues. 

To conclude, in foreign policy terms Modi’s government has far less constraints than the previous government. This provides tremendous potential for the development of strategic relations and a stronger and bolder foreign policy approach. But, this will essentially flow from India’s economic growth and development.

We will also need to see if bold approaches can be made within a precarious regional security environment. This will be primarily based, I think, on a sense of ‘ruthless pragmatism’ in India’s policy towards the neighbourhood and beyond.

And, finally, we should also expect ‘surprises’ from Modi’s government in foreign policy - tactically but not strategically.

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