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An agenda for India's Hillary Clinton

June 02, 2014 20:52 IST

Sushma Swaraj, like Hillary Clinton, has a strong political base in her own party and is likely to have her imprint on foreign policy, says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

Sushama Swaraj as external affairs minister to Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be like Hillary Clinton as secretary of state to President Barack Obama. Both of them have steely determination, clear vision and courage, together with charm and friendliness, which are assets for the top diplomat in any country.

Swaraj is likely to succeed just as Clinton did and prepare herself for higher responsibilities. Swaraj, like Clinton, has a strong political base in her own party and she is likely to have her imprint on foreign policy, even though Prime Minister Modi's powerful personality will have a decisive say in foreign affairs even more than previous prime ministers had.

The Modi government began with a bang by gathering the leaders of SAARC countries and Mauritius on day one of its term. It was a bold initiative that ignited speculation that peace would break out between India and Pakistan and that India would condone the atrocities against Sri Lankan Tamils. But the meetings marked continuity rather than change in foreign policy.

Modi read the riot act to Nawaz Sharif on terrorism and left Mahinda Rajapakse in no doubt that India's sympathy lay with the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Swaraj was present at these meetings and was enthusiastic about the line that Modi took with these leaders.

The nation has been reassured that there would be no adventurism in foreign policy and that the new policy would be built on the sound foundation it already has. For the EAM, this is reassuring and she can entrust the highly professional Foreign Service to present options, based on established policies and current realities.

Now that a clear direction has been set for the neighbours, the EAM will do well to focus on the big powers, particularly the United States, China and Russia, followed by Japan and Germany. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has already taken the earliest opportunity to get in touch with Swaraj. While the PM mulls over the wounds inflicted by the visa denial issue, the EAM could quickly move to bring back the strategic partnership with the United States, whom Atal Bihari Vajpayee characterised as India's natural ally.

It is not beyond her to find a formula to deal with the main grievances of the United States, such as the nuclear liability law, slowing down of defence purchases and uncertainty about the reform agenda.

For a government which has development and security as its priorities, the relations with the US should be extremely important. So are the relations with China, Germany and Japan.

China, it appears, is only too keen to work with the Modi government, but we need to tread carefully in our dance with China. This government as well as the next two or three governments in India will have to grapple with the extraordinary impact of the rise of China, as it races towards world leadership, as noted by Obama just the other day.

Opening up to China economically and commercially without an eye on the security threats it poses to India will be unwise.

Our policy needs to be calibrated to suit our economic needs without endangering our security. The border negotiations need to be pulled out of the schedule set by China without any end in sight so that the border is demarcated and the threat of 'unintended' incursions removed. Every talent that the government can command should be deployed in the management of the relations with China. The fact that the government has a mandate to pursue a tough policy towards China is a major advantage.

Shinzo Abe's Japan will be an asset in many ways for India in the years to come. If the prime minister chooses Japan as his first destination abroad on a bilateral visit, it will send the right signals across the world. Japan has a better sense of the hard realities of China, while many in India tend to look at China with romance-tinted glasses. Sharing of ideas with Japan will contribute to clarity in our view of China.

By partnering Japan, we may not end up on the wrong side of the emerging power equations in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Abe's prediction that Japan-India relations would overtake Japan-US and Japan-China relations may indeed come true.

Germany and the European Union in general will require attention, even if their importance is diminishing politically. The Indian corporate world has registered successes in Europe through investments and trade and our industry will do well to emulate the production strategies and quality standards of Europe. Apart from the EU, the other groupings like BRICS, IBSA and ASEAN also merit attention./p>

One particular challenge the EAM will face, like Clinton did, is to reassure the Islamic world of India's commitment to them. The Muslim countries are no more nervous with our links with Israel, but the fears expressed in India about the minorities are of concern to them.

West Asia is a volatile region and we have major stakes in peace and stability there and the fortunes of the millions of Indians there depend on the sense of comfort that that the Arab countries feel with the new government.

The more initiatives we take to strengthen the confidence of the Muslim world, the greater the prospects will be for our trade, commerce and migration interests in the Gulf and elsewhere.

The BJP manifesto is clear on maintaining a robust nuclear deterrent, without frittering away our assets in this field. But equally important is the nuclear doctrine, which has served us well in the tumultuous days after the nuclear explosions of 1998. It played a role in earning us the designation of a responsible nuclear power, if not a recognised Nuclear Weapon State. Any signal that our nuclear assets might become a threat would attract adverse international reaction. Our doctrine is broad enough to keep our deterrent credible.

As for nuclear power, we cannot afford to ignore the global trends towards renunciation of nuclear power because of the major risks involved. We should reduce our dependence on nuclear power and develop alternative sources to avoid losing heavy investments being made in this sector. Another Fukushima, God forbid, will lead to a world without nuclear power.

The EAM should be the point person for the United Nations and she should be visible in New York, more than her predecessors have been. Foreign ministers play a key role there by acquiring certain expertise on multilateral diplomacy. The tradition of the BJP is to attach importance to India's role in the world and it is likely to renew our efforts to secure for India permanent membership in the UN Security Council.

But we need to rethink our present strategy of making it the Holy Grail of Indian foreign policy. It has been clear for some time that permanent membership with veto is not achievable and that we may have to settle for a lower status. The perils of permanent membership without veto are quite formidable. We should keep our claim alive, but support to our position should not become the litmus test of our bilateral relations.

The new EAM will also be looking after the overseas Indians as the concerned ministry is being merged with the ministry of external affairs. This is a welcome development as the former had difficulty in getting our embassies to take orders from them.

Moreover, Swaraj is a veteran in dealing with overseas Indians and she is particularly popular among Indian Americans. Vayalar Ravi, the previous minister for Overseas Indian Affairs, did an outstanding job in bridging bridges with the Diaspora across the globe and Swaraj is eminently qualified to continue the good work.

The Modi government has already demonstrated that it will build its foreign policy on the sound foundations laid by the previous governments. But this approach will face challenges when international developments will demand innovation and instant reaction.

With a strong mandate, a decisive prime minister and a worthy minister of external affairs, the new government is poised to make a success of foreign policy.

Image: External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj takes charge of her ministry in South Block, New Delhi, on May 28, 2014. Photograph: Atul Yadav/PTI.

T P Sreenivasan is former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA; Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council; Director General, Kerala International Centre. You can read his columns on Rediff.com here.

T P Sreenivasan