Testing times ahead

G. Parthasarathy highlights some of the key foreign and domestic issues facing Narendra Modi in his second term

When he first assumed office in 2014, Prime Minister Modi was relatively new to dealing with foreign policy. Yet his priorities were clear on a number of issues which were the focus of national attention. Such issues had traditionally been addressed by policies enjoying a national consensus. These policies, described as ‘nonalignment’ in the days of the Cold War, are today called a quest for ‘strategic autonomy’.

The second salient feature of India’s policy has been a consistent effort to build a stable, peaceful, cooperative and economically integrated neighbourhood across the Indian subcontinent, now alluded to as ‘South Asia’. With the advent of economic liberalization in India in the 1990s, the definition of India’s ‘neighbourhood’ expanded, with a quest for economic integration with the fast-growing economies of the countries of East and Southeast Asia. The ASEAN grouping was and remains the fulcrum of this effort.

Emphasis on economic integration with India’s eastern neighbourhood continued after Mr Modi assumed office in 2014. But economic integration across the subcontinent stalled, as Pakistan remained averse to linking its economy with India through the SAARC grouping. This resulted in Mr Modi taking the far-reaching decision that the BIMSTEC organization, linking India with its eastern and Southeast Asian neighbours across the Bay of Bengal, would be India’s primary grouping for promoting regional economic integration.

The real jewel in the crown of his neighbourhood policy, however, was Mr Modi’s outreach to the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries, where over 7 million Indian nationals live, remitting around $40 billion annually to the Indian economy. Moreover, around 70 per cent of India’s oil imports are from these countries. This effort has now cleared the way for investments of billons of dollars by the oil-rich Gulf states in petro-chemical industries in India.

Mr Modi’s first term also involved building a viable framework to ensure that international pressure was increasingly focused on defanging radical Islamic groups operating in India’s western neighbourhood. These groups included the Taliban and Haqqani Network, active in Afghanistan, and Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which operate in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in India. International pressures through the International Financial Action Task Force (FATF) made IMF and other economic assistance from the international community conditional on an end to the activities of internationally designated terrorist groups in Pakistan.

Thereafter, Mr Modi acted in the beginning of his second term to amend and virtually discard the ‘temporary, transitional and special provisions’ of Article 370 of India’s Constitution, pertaining to governance in Jammu and Kashmir. Interestingly, influential sections of the Congress and other opposition parties supported this move, which predictably raised hackles in Pakistan.

New Delhi had factored in Pakistani objections and was well prepared to deal with them, anticipating that Pakistan would seek to internationalize what had happened in the UN Security Council. The Pakistan Government has long sought to dilute the provisions of the Simla Agreement signed in 1972, which committed both countries to resolving the issue of Jammu and Kashmir through bilateral negotiations. India was confident that it would easily be able to meet any challenges posed to it by a reference to the UN Security Council by Pakistan. The fundamental issue was, after all, one involving internal change in the governance structure of Jammu and Kashmir. There was no change in India’s policy of how the issue would be addressed bilaterally and internationally. Consultations in New York and in world capitals made it clear that international support would be forthcoming for the Indian position that this issue should be addressed through bilateral talks and not through the UN. What was heartening was the almost immediate receipt of assurances of support from the US, Russia, France, Germany and virtually all non-permanent members of the UN Security Council.

While China initially remained silent, it soon realized that as a result of the change in status of the Ladakh Region of Kashmir into a Federally Administered Area, India’s claims to the disputed Aksai Chin Region of Ladakh could take on a new dimension. It was this consideration that led to a hardening of the Chinese position, which changed to unfettered support for Pakistan and criticism of India. China led the charge against India during the closed-door debate of the Security Council on August 16, though India’s objections to any public declaration about the discussions were overwhelmingly supported. No formal statement was issued after the meeting, though the Ambassadors of China and Pakistan voiced their views separately to the press.

China led the charge against India during the closed-door debate of the Security Council on August 16

India recognizes that the months ahead are going to be difficult as the entire internal administration of Jammu and Kashmir has to be reorganized and the way paved for fresh elections to what will be a ‘Union Territory’ (much like Delhi and Pondicherry), with an elected Provincial Government. Elections for a new Legislature and formation of new Council of Ministers for the Union Territory are likely before the end of this year. More importantly, village and town councils have recently been elected in Jammu and Kashmir. They are set to receive substantial funds for grassroots economic development, which has been sadly missing all these years. New Delhi is under no illusion that these measures alone will end violence by armed groups immediately; but the expectation is that, with many separatists charged for various offences, including money laundering and incitement, the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir will improve significantly as the winter snows commence, closing routes of infiltration into the Kashmir Valley.

It would be only appropriate to note here that the UK took a position significantly different from that of its allies such as the US, France and Germany when the issue of Jammu and Kashmir came up for discussion in the UN Security Council. Whitehall chose to back Chinese actions on a number of occasions during the closed-door debate of the UN Security Council on August 16. Worse still, the Indian High Commission in London was attacked by a huge mob of persons of Pakistani origin, with little or no security protection for those joining India’s Independence Day celebrations on August 15. Prime Minister Modi expressed his disappointment at these developments when he spoke to his counterpart Mr Boris Johnson.

To many in India who are deeply committed to better relations with the UK, these developments have not exactly been in keeping with the spirit of friendly bilateral ties traditionally enjoyed by these two nations.

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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