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Modi's breakout from the past

By Shekar Gupta
September 14, 2016 15:45 IST
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Narendra Modi speaking at the Red Fort on August 15

Modi has debunked the uncontested wisdom of foreign and strategic policy remaining unchanged and running on a broad national consensus. This is clearly seen in his unhesitating embrace of the US and the clear hardening shift in India's stance on Pakistan, says Shekhar Gupta.

At an interaction in New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Technology that I moderated earlier this week, US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to a phrase Prime Minister Narendra Modi used in his address on Capitol Hill earlier this year: India and the US, he said, had rid themselves of hesitations of history.

He didn’t have to go far to see evidence of not just the hesitations but also hypocrisies of history. Just a short walk out of the campus would have taken him to the section of Delhi’s Outer Ring Road named after Gamal Abdel Nasser, perhaps the only avenue in the world named after the Egyptian dictator of Cold War/Non-Alignment years whose legacy his own countrymen have fully rejected.

That a mile to the east, the same avenue would have become Ho Chi Minh Road is evidence that the Cold War still lives on the Indian capital’s streets and landmarks. But it would have been only half the story.

The same evening, Kerry somewhat mysteriously decided to extend his stay in Delhi by a couple of days, causing much speculation. Next day, a key reason became apparent. Since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was arriving in New Delhi on a formal visit, Kerry decided to meet him here.

It underlined India’s peculiar combination of hesitations and hypocrisies of history. The Cold War ended 25 years back, a unipolar world emerged, then that pole also diminished in its magnetism, another grew to tease it, leading to an even less structured global balance of power. Cuba, Iran and America buried old hostilities.

India remained bemused, part embracing it warmly but part frozen in the past. A bit like the batsman who ventures far on the front foot but is unwilling to lift his back foot out of the crease, ending up in the cricketing no-man’s land. Kerry staying back to meet el-Sisi in Delhi, both hosted by Modi’s India, therefore, is a striking exposition of these hesitations, hypocrisies and intellectual laziness.

Such a pity we couldn’t get the three leaders to pose for a picture in front of the Nasser road sign. But you can picture that nevertheless and understand the significance of the shift.

Three significant prime ministers since the fall of the Berlin Wall -- P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh -- had accepted the need to shake off this old reluctance. Each, in his different ways and in his respective circumstances, had tried to do so. But at some point, each was thwarted by hesitations even more than hypocrisies. Modi has tossed away that past, and audaciously so.

In his address to the US Congress, he took the definition of strategic partnership to another level by using an adjective like 'indispensable', has continued to prefer defence, military and security as determinants of this partnership rather than the more general strategic and, most significantly, put forth the idea that India was United States’ most indispensable defence and security partner.

This isn’t thesaurus diplomacy but a move forward when our prime minister puts forward India as a strategic ally America can’t do without -- in this region -- is what goes without saying.

Note the fact that it will be the first year since the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement that an Indian prime minister would be giving it a miss. Apologies to Chaudhary Charan Singh’s fans and legatees, but his short-term government on daily wages in 1979 doesn’t quite qualify him to be a real prime minister and if he gave that year’s NAM a pass, it was understandable for domestic political reasons.

Modi, India’s first prime minister in 30 years with a full majority doing so is a statement, especially given how fond he is of foreign travel.

Continuity and consistency versus shift and change has been an eternal debate in India’s foreign policy-making. Usually the former has won quite conveniently. Power will change hands in a democracy, but that should not mean shifts in foreign and strategic policy which must continue running on a broad national consensus. That has so far been uncontested wisdom. Just around the time he entered the third year of his tenure, Modi has debunked this.

You see this not just in his most unhesitating embrace of the US, never mind that there will be a new President by the end of this year, or in the more symbolic gesture of missing the NAM Summit.

You see it also in his approach to China, the Islamic world and Pakistan. With China, he has internalised the near-term impossibility of a strategic thaw. His effort, not yet successful, is to re-mould it purely in transactional terms. You need our markets, we need your cheap goods, so enjoy your humongous benefit in balance of trade.

Strategic relationship is a different dimension and if you want our markets, at least don’t rock the boat there. But when the Chinese do, as with Nuclear Suppliers Group, Masood Azhar etc, he responds like a street fighter.

By throwing a question mark on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and a concerted swadeshi attack on imports of low-tech, low-skill manufactured goods from China. Note his exhortation recently to fellow Indians to return to their traditional love and commitment to icons and idols made of clay. What didn't need to be underlined was: It’s a cheap thing to pray to gaudy plastic icons from China.

Similarly in the Islamic world, Sunni as well as Shia, he is using both personal and national stature to build bilateral, transactional relationships. In the new environment when everybody, from the US to Europe to China and even Saudi Arabia and the UAE are petrified of radical, stateless Islam and when Iran is seen as vital to reversing the spread of Islamic State, he has space to exploit. And he is doing so, breaking away from the habitual old compulsion of having to nuance India’s relations with the Islamic world with the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

This is why some new murmurs from Organisation of Islamic States on Kashmir haven’t caused a fraction of the consternation it would in the past.

This approach has enabled a new policy on Pakistan -- the invocation of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan. The 25-year-old approach of caution on Kashmir has been dumped although it is arguable if it has paid dividends so far.

Modi, however, thinks there is no more benefit to be had from it, and it is time to move on, particularly as Pakistan is increasingly isolated, its own use of F-16s and artillery against its own citizens leaves it no moral space to question India on human rights in Kashmir, its nuisance (and therefore blackmail) value declining and there being no sympathy in this world, whatsoever, for anything that might look like a pan-Islamic cause.

See it this way: Pakistan can send not 22 but a hundred envoys around the world and say it has a problem with India and it is called Kashmir. India, on the other hand, will counter saying everyone has a problem with Pakistan and it’s called terrorism. The argument is clinched there.

It explains Modi’s breakout from continuity on Kashmir/Pakistan. We need to underline, however, another shift essential to this: The Modi government has shed India’s nuclear diffidence too. It is no longer willing to concede deterrence only in Pakistan’s hands.

His own hand, therefore, isn’t constrained by it.

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