New Delhi, Delhi, India
May 26, 2019, 01.29 PM
Syed Ata Hasnain
With the NDA-3 government in the forming, one of the focussed domains of its predecessor NDA-2 comes to mind. Foreign policy was one of the success stories of NDA-2, something not too many people expected at the outset. That is the domain which must not lose focus with the next government because there will be many competing domains of equal significance. The Prime Minister chose to make this the area of his personal focus too in the last government, undertaking long travels to be at the important strategic diplomatic events and meetings with world leaders. However, in strategic leadership, time management is one of the major challenges. It is unlikely that in his next avatar Narendra Modi can devote as much time to foreign policy as he did in the previous. Much depends on the choice of his Cabinet and the identity of the right talent. The economy is going to take up much of his time, especially in view of the escalation in energy prices and the impending continuation of trade wars and agriculture-related problems.
Internal security too will demand much more of his time because, under NDA-2, issues such as J&K at best festered and then stabilised with no transformational outcomes on the horizon. It will need his personal energy if Modi has to convert the situation in J&K to any advantage at a time when Pakistan is on a suspected ‘time out’. Similarly, the National Security Advisor remained most involved with foreign policy to find adequate time for internal security. Under NDA-3, I would expect a foreign policy to be handled far more by the Ministry of External Affairs with ministers and advisors who have the total confidence and the ear of the Prime Minister.
In the foreign policy domain, the prime issues at stake for addressing in the immediate future rotate around the Middle East where war seems imminent on a day and far removed the very next. Considering the strength of India’s relationship with the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Iran, as also the stakes that exist for it in the stability of this crucial region, perhaps the weight of Indian diplomacy could be a few shades higher. Engagement with all of them must be visible beyond just diplomatic niceties. It is accepted that the US-Iran crisis developed rapidly and unexpectedly through the period of India’s high decibel elections when it was difficult for the government to have the time of the Prime Minister to focus on it. However, amends must be made and made quickly. Our stakes in the Gulf region go beyond just energy and relate more importantly to the almost 7.5 million Indian expatriates who earn their living there and remit almost 37 billion US$ every year. The fact that Iran’s foreign minister came calling on India among the important stakeholders conveys Iran’s dependence on India too. The Middle East success of NDA-2 was indeed one of its high marks. Can it be exploited to advantage by NDA-3.
NDA-3 is going to transit through the next US presidential election. The strategic partnership with the US has moved many notches in the last five years but isn’t entirely cast in iron. Clash of interests is expected at times, but this must not lead to a downturn in relations. If India could weather the Trump Administration there should be no problem handling more altruistic ones. The challenge for NDA-3 lies in convincing the US that India’s foreign policy will need to be multilateral in nature without compromising on mutual Indo-US strategic interests. Among the thorny issues will be Russia which for India is a crucial nation. We cannot have threats being posed on the imposition of the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) on India due to irritants caused by the 5 billion US$ S-400 deal. India needs institutional support, technology, and strategic backing from the US in its progress to higher status but it cannot compromise relationships which could be just a couple of notches lower in significance.
More long-term than most other engagements is the domain of Sino-India relations. NDA-2 handled this well considering that in 2017 relations were at nadir due to Doklam. The government walked away with credits for having stood its ground without immediate compromise. That the PLA then, went on to construct state of the art facilities for housing a regiment of the PLA opposite Doklam has received criticism in India. Yet, it is also clear that most of this infrastructure does not relate to warfighting. Where Modi really scored was the follow-up to Doklam which ultimately took him to Wuhan for a dialogue with Xi Jinping. That dialogue has resulted in the current stability of the relationship. Now, with China in a state of worry after the trade war unleashed by the US, it is India which holds much significance for China. Trade stands at 95 billion US$ and volumes can be enhanced to sustain the Chinese GDP growth in an era of high energy prices. This is an issue which will need attention to make the most of.
The domain which is unmistakably going to be challenging is the Indo-Pacific. The US has invested much in India to rake it into a strategic construct which could actively deny China the freedom to muscle its way in the Pacific and feel threatened in the Indian Ocean.