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Modi's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' moment in Nepal

August 04, 2014 11:21 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Nepal visit was an eye-opener for most Indians, as it appears as though the hard feelings of 17 years of neglect by Indian PMs has been overcome by this single, sincere visit, says Rajeev Srinivasan.

The rapturous welcome Narendra Modi received on August 3 in Nepal did overshadow similar scenes of bonhomie when he made his very first overseas trip to Bhutan on June 19. To be honest, we have become blasé about India as big brother bullying and annoying its neighbours, but it doesn’t have to be so. The Nepal visit was an eye-opener for most Indians, as it appears as though the hard feelings of 17 years of neglect by Indian PMs has been overcome by this single, sincere visit.

In many ways, the tour-de-force speech the PM made was of the same order as John Kennedy’s magnificent ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in 1963 in divided Germany, promising help to the suffering East Germans. It signalled a sea-change in India’s hitherto hapless ‘near-abroad’ policy.

These visits underline what appears to be a carefully-thought-through approach to foreign policy. The Modi foreign policy imperative can best be understood through a series of concentric circles, which are both geographic and ideological, with some exceptions. It may help to draw a series of circles of increasing radius on a map, centered on New Delhi.

Something roughly along these lines has been articulated in the President’s speech, with its list of countries presumably in order of priority for the government: SAARC, China, Japan, Russia, the US, Europe. This list has friends, enemies and semi-friends. Clearly SAARC gets the first charm offensive: after all, no country can be truly effective unless its backyard is stable and serene.

And that’s exactly what the prime minister has attempted: to draw Bhutan and Nepal away from the grasping tentacles of China. By emphasising cultural links, he has made Nepalis think about their commonality with India (which are much greater than with China). Besides, given genuine warmth on both sides, it is possible that both will benefit from trade.

This is a tack that the previous United Progressive Alliance administration never bothered to take: they, instead, were overbearing with their friends and servile to their enemies in the region. Instead, it may work wonders if India were to listen more carefully to their SAARC neighbours and collaborated for mutual benefit -- for example, by importing the mountain nations’ hydro electricity more readily into energy-hungry India.

Once SAARC (with the exception of Pakistan, with which no rational dialogue can take place) is quiescent and friendly, India can spread its wings. The next concentric circle includes Southeast Asia, China and Japan. In terms of mischief it can wreak, clearly China has no equal. The all-weather friend that it props up, Pakistan, is a serious nuisance to not only India, but all of Asia.

However, China must be engaged, both from a strategic and an economic sense. The total trade is heavily skewed in China’s favour, and anyway almost everything China buys from India is raw material (such as iron ore). Besides, China is obviously encircling India in a pre-emptive move -- by reaching out to Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives to build alliances. China deserves the public olive branch, but in private it should be told that there will be pain if it does not behave, for instance, at the Line of Actual Control.

Japan, of course, is our most likely strong ally, and a good one it will be, too.

Russia, while it is declining, is still one of the more important powers, and a long-term friend (albeit one that is imploding into demographic irrelevance).

The US is the question mark, the frenemy, friend-enemy. And then there is Europe, which means for all practical purposes Germany.

That more or less completes the concentric circles, and working systematically to engage with each of these at the appropriate level will be of benefit.

The downgrading of the United States is only fair, mostly because of its own strong-arm tactics and its State Department’s unrelenting hostility, including through its media friends such as the New York Times.

It appears as though this scenario of concentric circles will underlie the Modi government’s foreign policy, in spite of there being occasional other events, such as the BRICS summit, the UN General Assembly visit, and so forth. Having some kind of an architecture for its foreign policy would, in and of itself, be a major plus.

In the past, India has suffered from two failings: one, a tendency to wing it (thus foreign policy in effect became ad hoc by choice, with no serious preparation based on a roadmap). This has been disastrous, as better-briefed (and game-theory-knowledgeable) opponents ran rings around India’s bumbling interlocutors.

Two, there has been a lack of institutionalisation. Policies were essentially the whims and fancies of whoever was in power at the time (an example was the over-generous I K Gujral betraying India’s counter-intelligence assets in Pakistan, leading to their capture and usually execution). To have a foreign policy with some contours of a roadmap with clear objectives will be a relief.

Of course, all this needs to be informed with the strategic intent as well: India is to become one of the poles in a multi-polar world, not find itself forced to align with one or the other poles, eg, the US and China.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi mingles with the people in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, on August 3, 2014.

Rajeev Srinivasan