Remote to 2019 elections

Foreign Policy

By Dr. D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

We are mid-way in the elections to 17th Lok Sabha, yet there is hardly any sound on India’s relations with the rest of the world. By many optimistic estimates, India is now a $3 trillion economy, soon going to be the third largest in the world, may outpace China, and is expected to play a significant role in world affairs. With such a lofty ambition, why is there no sound and fury taking India to its preferred position in international community? Evidently the current election is very hard and bitterly fought between contenders, more than perhaps any in the past.
There is a plausible explanation for absence of foreign policy issues in Indian elections. That is, many common people are not directly exposed to foreign land or issues, so cannot develop any empathy or enthusiasm for things foreign to them. They get mobilised, and become reactive when such issues get internalised and begin to affect their daily lives. For instance, the migration and citizenship issue in the North-East, especially Assam.
At the same time, leaders are too engrossed in national politics, of the sub-continental size, to pay attention to foreign policy. It is left to the ruling party, mainly the PMO and MEA mandarins in the South Block. Thirdly, foreign policy does not make a decisive impact on the outcome of the elections. Again, for instance, in 1999, Vajpayee, the Prime Minister fought the Kargil war and won the General elections. Vajpayee was seen as tough and a determined leader. In 2008, there was no military response by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the horrendous terrorist attack in Mumbai. He was perceived a weak and indecisive leader. Yet he got re-elected in 2009 with a bigger majority. So clearly, foreign policy was not the issue in the election.
However, to be sure, things seem to change. Narendra Modi government is consciously playing the nationalism card in Indian politics. It may be an electoral strategy or a matter of their conviction that, the country will progress cohesively as a nation and attain glory abroad as a strong and assertive country. The nature of nationalism formulated and advanced by BJP is debatable, but it has brought internationalism to the mainstream discourse.
Let us study the manifestoes of both the major parties, the BJP and INC vis-a-vis India’s foreign policy in order to assess the ‘claim’ of India becoming a major player. As a matter of fact, there is not much of content in either manifesto to support this claim. Both parties talk of using the international forums to fight terrorism and to enhance trade etc.
The INC is more geared towards UN, and has a ‘soft narrative on terrorism. It says we will reckon with the “importance of concrete steps at international forums to take actions against countries and organisations supporting terrorism”. It adds, INC “will persuade other countries to compel Pakistan to desist from sponsoring terror”.
BJP, as expected has a bit more pro-active stance, and says we will tackle the global evils such as terrorism and corruption at international institutions such as UN, G-20, BRICS, Sanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and the Commonwealth. It asserts “India’s interest in ensuring an open, inclusive, prosperous and secure Indo-Pacific”.
Both parties talk of a permanent seat for India at the UNSC and the membership of NSG, the nuclear supplier group. But, they do not spell out any strategy or road-map for securing this objective. The parties have a divergent approach to the neighbourhood, mainly the SAARC.
INC talks of reviving “SAARC to reap the benefits of geographical proximity in terms of trade, investment, tourism, and cultural exchange. BJP does not mention SAARC, as it has concluded that SAARC cannot progress with Pakistan in it. Instead, it focuses on BIMSTEC, the Bay of Bengal initiative that was created in 1997 without Pakistan. BJP talks also of deepening contact with ASEAN. On SAARC, BJP may have the right approach as it is the least integrated regional body, with about 5 per cent intra regional trade within SAARC, and with a dodgy member like Pakistan, it has not much future.
ASEAN has the potential to boost India’s regional profile in the region, as ASEAN considers India to be a counter-weight to China. Again India-ASEAN trade is quite low at 2.5 per cent of total ASEAN trade, compared to 14.1 per cent with China. Moreover, BJP is not talking about ASEAN-China collision in the region.
BJP and INC have different world view. INC will still like to retain the legacy of non-alignment, and to maintain strategic autonomy in foreign policy making. BJP, on the other hand, has a ‘world is a family’ approach, ‘vasudhaiva kutumbakam’, but instead of non-alignment, it prefers to make strategic alignment, like the trilateralism it is engaged in at present with Japan, America and India, which Modi acronymed as JAI – meaning victory, or with China and Russia in SCO etc.
On institutional front, INC wants to increase the diplomatic cadre as India seems to be heavily understaffed with less than 1000 diplomats. It seeks to build a National Council on foreign policy comprising members of the cabinet committee, national security experts and domain experts. BJP will promote a Committee of Nations against international terrorism. It will be a voluntary body to fight terrorism globally. INC will bring up a law on Asylum as against the BJP’s Citizenship Bill. Remember that India has not yet signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
In addition to whatever little is written into their respective manifestoes, BJP is talking from the roof top their successful surgical strike at Balakot in response to the Pulwama terrorist attack on our CRPF convoy on 14 February 2019, killing 40 personnel. The Balakot strike may influence the middle-class voters.
There is constant reference to dealing with Pakistan, both parties accusing each other of complicity with Pakistani leadership. Both Chinese and Pakistani leaders have made statements in favour of Modi’s victory, which may be a malafide wish. But this sounds strange when NAMO claims belligerence against Pakistan, not so much on China, both countries support his leadership. Congress has not taken advantage of this dichotomous position of Modi’s leadership.
Finally, there is no mention of any other major player or partner, except the neighbourhood and ASEAN, confirming the premise that foreign policy is remote to Indian elections. As India’s domestic determinants become more potent, India’s external influences increase, there is greater exchange at business and civil society levels with the external world, foreign policy will figure prominently as election issues. It is a natural and logical progression ‘despite the parties’ in power. So let us watch it out. —INFA