Winning Friends and Influencing Neighbours
While Narendra Modi campaigned on the economic platform, his first act as PM is one of foreign policy: a move that has taken almost everyone unawares.
Naturally, the headlines are being hogged by what will be a historic first, Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan visiting a new Indian PM on his first day in office. That, of course, is as it should be, given that relations with Pakistan have to be the cornerstone of India’s foreign policy. Inviting the rest of the SAARC heads — while many are viewing it as suitable windowdressing for Sharif ’s visit — is sending a completely different message to the global community. I’m being asked this question over the past few days: is Modi delivering a subtle snub to the grand powers of US and Europe, who snubbed him in the past, by inviting close neighbours? It’s fairly well known that unlike the Anglophile regimes of the past, Modi is keener to develop trade and economic ties in Asia. Given that Asia is where the growth opportunities are, that’s a no-brainer. Everyone in the world wants more economic relations in Asia. On the other hand, is this just about economics or are we seeing a hint of a new foreign policy? India, traditionally, has punched far below its weight in regional and geopolitical circles. You don’t have to be the US or China to wield geopolitical clout. Ask Russia, or Britain, or France, middling countries that wield enormous clout in geopolitical and regional matters.
It doesn’t take a political guru to work out that if India can win friends and influence people among its neighbours — in the ASEAN region, in SAARC — the diplomatic and economic dividends will be enormous. While I agree that relations with Pakistan are critical, the trouble with India’s foreign policy has been an obsession with Pakistan even at global forums where the relations are irrelevant, and fre- quently at the expense of other relationships, in the neighbourhood. Pakistan seems to define India’s foreign policy and its identity in geopolitical equations. It’s a question that people in the diaspora ask: why is India so insular and obsessed with Pakistan? Everyone knows that India has the economic standing and sheer size to create a subcontinental power bloc. As a senior Pakistani businessman once told me, India is the big brother in the region: “Yes, we do have problems in Pakistan, but a lot of Pakistanis look to India to take the lead in ensuring things like those terror attacks don’t happen.”
I’d like to hope that Modi’s invite to Sharif is an indication that India is ready to start taking on the role of big brother, and setting an agenda in the region. I’d prefer to see Modi’s invite of the other SAARC leaders not as windowdressing, but as an acknowledgement that there’s more to the region than Indo-Pak ties. While everyone in India pays lip service to the importance of neighbours, the fact is that the Indian establishment ignores the smaller neighbours. Reviving the SAARC umbrella is yet another global message. SAARC has become pretty much defunct, what with the rise and rise of China. So this is also a message to China, where Modi is apparently popular, that India means business, and not necessarily from a position of weakness. I don’t know if that is Modi’s game plan, but to the rest of the world, the message we’re getting is that India is willing, if not ready, to swim in deeper international waters.