The invitation by the incoming government of Narendra Modi to the leaders of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is being seen for the diplomatic master stroke that it is. In one fell swoop, it has answered several questions about the nature of the incoming regime and also staked out a number of positions relating to its outlook.
To be specific its foreign policy will not divert significantly from those of past governments, and that it will seek to build relations on a template which was actually drawn up during the previous NDA government, headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Even so, there are four significant issues arising from the development.
Newly sworn-in Prime Minister Narendra Modi accepts greetings from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after the swearing-in ceremony of the NDA government at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on Monday. Pic/PTI
First, it has sent a powerful signal about what could well in the coming years be called the Delhi Consensus — that democracy works, even for poor developing countries and is the superior way of doing things. In the last couple of years as the US turned inward and Europe appeared to implode, rising China seemed to signal that, perhaps, its authoritarian model was the better one when it comes to development.
In virtually each of our neighbouring nations, there is a battle going on between forces of democracy and those of authoritarianism and anarchy. That the largest nation in SAARC has seen a peaceful, indeed, a routine transfer of power, despite the radical nature of verdict, is a powerful signal.
Second, India has signalled that it will embed its regional policy within the framework of SAARC. This should reduce the disquiet among our neighbours arising from the sheer size of India and its economy. This has a history since India’s Pakistan policy of today is rooted in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Islamabad to attend the 12th SAARC summit between 4-6 January 2004.
Two events here shaped the UPA-1 and 2 policies. The first was the signing of the Framework Agreement on the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and bring the customs duty on traded goods to zero by 2016. The second was a joint statement in which the Pakistan president committed to ensure that Pakistan’s territory would not be used for terror attacks against India and the resumption of the composite dialogue.
Third, this signal is important because among the foremost tasks that confront the government is to push for the economic integration of the South Asian region. India’s goal of being an economic power of significance cannot take off unless it is able to knit the natural economies of the South Asian region together.
This is accepted by all SAARC countries who are committed to SAFTA. Indian leadership here would be a crucial determinant in moving the project forward in the coming years. We are already at a breakthrough point with Pakistan at last coming around to giving India the Most Favoured Nation (or Non Discriminatory Market Access (NDMA).
Fourth, and this is not something to be talked about loudly: The presence of the South Asian leaders and the prime minister of Mauritius, lays out in a way, India’s sphere of interest in the South Asian and Indian Ocean Region. It goes without saying that Pakistan and Afghanistan are a special case here since Islamabad’s grand strategy has always been to seek parity with India by hook or by crook.
But, the other South Asian nations know that they are ‘India locked’ and that while they may accept aid and arms from China, there are some red lines that they should not cross. This is the lesson learnt, most recently, by Nepal.
When the Maoist government of Prachanda started trying to alter the Himalayan balance by pushing Beijing to play a bigger role in Nepal. India reacted and within a few years it was successful in neutralising him and getting Nepali politics back behind the Indian red lines.
All this must be seen in the context of the Modi government’s larger ambitions to restore India to the economic growth path. Only if that happens over the next few years, will the Indian economy exert a regional pull, but it will also aid in quickening the pace of modernisation of the Indian armed forces.
Presumably, of course, the government will carry out the necessary organisational reforms that are needed to ensure that the Indian military is not just the sum of a certain number of tanks, fighter aircraft and the like, but an effective instrument of India’s national security policy.
Many fire-eaters, who had expected a ‘56’ -inch foreign policy, will be disappointed at this approach. But for one thing, they are not running the government. For another, what is clear is that in the area of foreign policy, which did not figure much in the campaign and constituted an insignificant portion of the BJP election manifesto, will follow the existing track.
Significantly this is derived from those of the BJP-led NDA in the 1998-2004 period, which emphasised engagement with the neighbouring countries. However, with the rise of China, it is clear that unless India’s foreign policy is anchored in a strong national security system, it will not have much of a market either in the region, or the world.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi