High hopes, new tests

Narendra Modi’s second term as premier begins amid optimism but, writes G Parthasarathy, along with aspirations come fresh challenges

With all the pomp and splendour that marked his investiture five years ago, Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister of India for a second term on May 30.Attending the swearing-in ceremony were the Heads of Government of India’s eastern neighbouring countries which are members of the BIMSTEC Regional Group (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), comprising Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka,Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan. The Prime Minister of Mauritius was also present.

This composition of invitees signalled that New Delhi’s main route to regional cooperation would be through its BIMSTEC and eastern neighbours, and not SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation), which includes Pakistan and Afghanistan. New Delhi will promote Regional cooperation and connectivity with Afghanistan through Iran.

As part of the ceremonials, members of Modi’s new Cabinet were also sworn in. The surprise appointment as the country’s Foreign Minister was former diplomat Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, whose diplomatic postings abroad included Moscow, Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, Singapore and Colombo. He was earlier the de-facto head of the Foreign Office, enjoying the total confidence of Prime Minister Modi. Jaishankar played a key role in defusing Sino-Indian tensions over troop deployments in Doklam, located astride the China-India-Bhutan tri-junction. ASummit meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinpingin Wuhan thereafter led to moves to disengage troops and end hostilities along the Sino-Indian border. With New Delhi and Beijing having decided they will not allow tensions along their disputed borders to escalate,President Xi is scheduled to visit India later this year for talks with Mr Modi in his Parliamentary Constituency, Varanasi (Benares).

In light of this understanding reached with China, Modi realises that India has‘strategic space’ to maintain a measure of ‘strategic autonomy’ in dealing with Moscow, Beijing and Washington. He had an early meeting with Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and is scheduled to visit Moscow later this year. Russia has long been a reliable supplier of defence equipment to India and this relationshipis set to grow, though bilateral ties are bereft of meaningful economic content. Russia is determined to play a significant role in Afghanistan, where there appears to be a measure of complementarity between Washington and Moscow on the dangers of radicalisation, promoted by outfits like ISIS and the Taliban. India would like to see this cooperation continue.

While India’s relations with the US improved remarkably during Mr Modi’s first term and there is optimism in Delhi of a growing India-US strategic partnership, there are also signs of strainon the horizon. Following the Trump administration’s unilateral imposition of enhanced duties on a range of Indian exports, India has retaliated by enhancing duties on a number of American products. Likewise, there are serious differences over India’s imports of weapons from Russia. The US is threatening to impose sanctions on the import of S-400 Surface-to-Air Missiles from Russia, for which India has already placed orders.Russia, the US, France and Israel are major suppliers of arms to India, which is determinedto go ahead with the S-400 Missile deal, despite American reservations. Payments arrangements for Russian weapons supplies, by-passing American sanctions, were reportedly agreed to when President Putin visited India in October 2018.While there are also concerns about US actions on the development of 5G communications, both countries have misgivings over the functioning of China’s Huawei.

SURPRISE APPOINTMENT: India’s new Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar
SURPRISE APPOINTMENT: India’s new Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar

Mr Modi has made known his concerns about China using its economic clout to lead recipient countries into a ‘debt trap’ by extending large loans at near commercial rates for infrastructure and construction projects under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. The western world, led by the US, has done precious little to address shared fears on this score, even after such developments asSri Lanka’s handing over of majority stakes in the Hambantota Port to China, and similar happenings elsewhere across the Indian Ocean Region, including in Africa.

Given Mr Modi’s close personal relationship with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, India and Japan have established a partnership to jointly extend economic assistance to countries including Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh, so that the Hambantota experience is not replicated elsewhere on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

In his first five years in office, Mr Modi – the first Prime Minister of India who was born after Independence –adopted a pro-active policy in reaching out to the Indian diaspora worldwide. Requests by Indians abroad for improved facilities and communications vis-à-vis visiting and doing business in Indiahave received a positive response. This is particularly true in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where over 5 million Indian nationals live. Whether in the UK, US, Canada, Dubai or Myanmar, Indian communities are now witnessing a new outreach from Mr Modi personally and Indian Diplomatic Missions on issues ranging from Yoga to cultural and business ties.

Russia has long been a reliable supplier of defence equipment to India

The past five years have also seen a forward movement in India’s relations with Europe’s major powers, Germany, France and the UK. Mr Modi enjoys a particularly warm personal relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron. The growth of defence cooperation with France is symbolised by the deal for frontline Rafale fighter aircraft and naval equipment, including manufacture in India. As for economic cooperation with Germany, it has expanded substantially in recent years, and there is optimism about the direction German policies will take in a post-Merkel era.

Finally, Mr Modi has considerable interest in the Indian community in the UK. One cannot forget the welcome that Britain accorded to Indians expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda, many of whom were from Mr Modi’s home state. While uncertainty looms overthe direction UK policies will take after Brexit, India’s relationship with Britain, which has its own special characteristics, should remain strong. New Delhi and London can imaginatively fashion a new and forward-looking partnership, especially given Mr Modi’s past ties with the UK.


G. Parthasarathy is a career Foreign Service Officer. He served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi

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