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PM Modi is a leader; Dr Singh was not: Cong's ex-foreign minister

May 19, 2015 13:10 IST

Former external affairs minister, K Natwar Singh, shares his critique of the Narendra Modi government's foreign policy in this e-mailed interview with Aditi Phadnis. Edited excerpts

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his predecessor Dr Manmohan Singh. Photograph: PTI

Narendra Modi has been in office for a year. How much of his foreign policy is about continuity and how much of it is about change? How would you evaluate India's position in the world today?

Since 1947, there has been a broad national consensus on foreign policy. No fundamental change can be made in our foreign relations. That does not mean that India's foreign policy is either episodic or static. Priorities depend on enfolding events. It would make no sense to ignore the realities around us. The world is a global village -- an account of the information technology revolution.

Non-alignment was neither a dogma, nor a doctrine. It is a state of mind. It has to re-invent itself to meet the demands of the 21st century. Let's not quibble about nomenclature. The bottom line is -- do we have an independent foreign policy or not? We do. India is too big and proud a country to be a camp follower of any country. We cannot be a client state either to the United States or China. The people of India would never allow it to happen.

I met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February 2014 in Ahmedabad. He was good enough to give me a considerable amount of his time. I began by telling him that I had not come to ask for a job. As someone who had spent his entire adult life dealing with diplomacy and foreign policy, I had come to draw his attention (as a citizen) to the fact that during the past six or seven months, he had not spoken on foreign policy once. He was likely to be the next prime minister and ultimately the foreign policy ball would fall in his lap. Why? Because ultimately, the prime minister decides foreign policy. An external affairs minister must have the approval of the prime minister before making any foreign policy moves or statements.

I ventured to point out that the national consensus had survived for over six decades because there was no alternative.

He has made the neighbourhood the crux of his government's outreach. Is it always wise to have your neighbours as your judges? Particularly because India's neighbours carry all kinds of baggage?

One of the specific suggestions I made to him was to begin dealing with our SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) neighbours, who had been neglected by the previous prime minister, who had only visited Bangladesh in the 9th year of his prime ministership.

For his oath-taking ceremony on May 26 last year, he did invite all our SAARC neighbours. It was a superb beginning. I have no hesitation in saying that after 12 months, his foreign policy grade has gone up by the month. His international image is very high. He is not writing the international agenda but no agenda can be drawn up without the Indian PM's views being taken into account. He is a fresh face on the international horizon. He has, to the best of my knowledge, established a good working relationship with his counterparts in the countries he has visited so far. On one occasion, he did err by sounding far too familiar when referring to a head of state at a joint press conference. He is a fast learner and realised that he might have gone too far.

He has introduced several new elements in foreign policy such as attention to the Diaspora. Are there any other new brushstrokes? An overemphasis on style?

The Indian Diaspora is his international constituency. It adores him. He is superb at mesmerising them. The process has gone from strength to strength in the past decade. Modi has made it one of his priorities. The Indian Diaspora is playing an important role in the US and the United Kingdom as constructive pressure groups to keep Indo-US, Indo-UK relations on an even keel.

Is Modi all style and no substance?

In my judgement, he is substance first. Style comes next. To me, style is an avoidable nuisance.

He has slipped more than once on minor issues. A prime minister should avoid making critical pronouncement on the policies of a previous government while abroad. He must have his own reasons for not taking the external affairs minister with him on most of his foreign visits. This is an unnecessary departure from established diplomatic practice, not only in India but the world over. For the current incumbent, it would be a crash course in diplomacy, which he needs.

If I am not mistaken, it was either in Berlin or Paris that he vehemently announced that India would not beg for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council but "demand it". Is anyone listening? The Security Council is the most exclusive club in the world. Five permanent veto-holding members are the US, China, Russia, the UK and France. The democratisation of the Security Council is long overdue, but not one of the five wish to share their privileged position with India or any other country. In any case, India alone cannot be the single member to join the P5 club. There will have to be a package, bearing in mind the geography of the world. Even on the package, there will be no unanimity.

China is the sole member of the P5 from Asia, Africa and South America. It will make wordy pronouncement about India playing a more active role in the UN and so on. Nothing beyond that. This is high-level verbalising -- an art at which the US, China, the UK and France are past masters. We should not get taken in.

At the moment, our standing in the world is high -- much, much higher than it was during the United Progressive Alliance-II. The current prime minister is a leader. His immediate predecessor was not. What Modi says carries weight. Never in the past have so many presidents, kings, prime ministers and foreign ministers come to India as in the last 12 months. This is nothing to scoff at.

What should he do that he is not doing?

I would put it another way. He should not look for quick fixes. They do not exist. There are no easy solutions for the Sino-India border dispute. None for Kashmir. On the Sino-India border dispute, Pakistan has a virtual veto. It is worth speculating whether our prime minister asked the Chinese president why he was so generous in doling out $41 billion for defence purposes in the next five years. Whom shall these arms be used against? I do not have to spell out the answer.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi should not lower his guard and keep his powder dry.

Aditi Phadnis in New Delhi