As Chairman of Parliament’s External Affairs Committee, I have always proudly articulated our tradition that political differences stop at the water’s edge—there isn’t a Congress foreign policy or a BJP foreign policy, only Indian foreign policy. Yet I can’t help feeling that there are aspects of the Modi Government’s foreign policy in the last three-and-a-half years that are not easy for many to swallow as India’s, rather than his.
As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nears its fourth anniversary since joining office, it is safe to conclude that we have at its helm a Prime Minister whose foreign policy report card has largely been a tale of two unfortunate halves.
During the first two years, India had a PM who served as an energetic salesman abroad for the Government of India, but one whose credibility in itself increasingly fell under question. After all, how long can a salesman impress by the sheer force of oratory and cleverly designed international spectacles if the package he is selling is empty? Moreover, worryingly there was inevitably a justifiable fear among many of us that these visits are merely ‘feel good’ aspects that mask growing troubles elsewhere and the serious lack of a cohesive foreign policy blueprint for the country.
This is, of course, leaving aside the fact that the “achche din” that were promised to the people of India also remain completely out of sight and the phrase has now silently been replaced by the equally vapid ‘New India’, an anachronism if at all. Lofty foreign policy pronouncements have helped divert attention from domestic concerns and preserved the image of Mr Modi’s India to a large extent, but even here a feeling of being let down has been mounting for some time. Even the most fervent sympathisers of the Prime Minister are now beginning to tire of the photo-ops and the “breaking news” stories of Mr Modi’s tireless travels abroad, seemingly with little connection to the needs of the aam aadmi at home.
For a government driven by (and drawing political capital from) its lavishly funded publicity machine, this is becoming a problem. India, as I have said often, needs to strike a balance between its hard power and soft power, and it is not the country with the bigger army that wins but that which tells the better story—and at the moment, the story Mr Modi and his colleagues in government are pitching to the world looks less and less convincing with every passing month. If foreign policy were merely a question of making fine speeches, then the Prime Minister would score top marks. But substance must follow grandiloquent oratory and unfortunately for Mr Modi, he has very little substance to show for his efforts abroad, and only a shipload more of promises to add to the titanic stock already piled high at home.
While the External Affairs Minister is herself a respected and widely-liked politician, her role in the formulation of foreign policy appears to be so tightly circumscribed that diplomats in Delhi have taken to referring to her, with a smile, as the Minister for Consular Affairs. Her time seems to be spent in helping Indians who have lost their passports abroad and Pakistanis needing heart surgery in India—not to mention with the totally pointless effort to splurge taxpaying money to secure Hindi as an official language at the United Nations
Like most Indians, I acknowledge the energy he has brought to his foreign travels—35 trips in four years to 53 countries. (Even if it means that his office still owes an outstanding amount of ₹325 crore for the PM’s foreign visits between November 2016 and February 2018, to the debt ridden national carrier, Air India). And I do think that getting the United Nations to adopt International Yoga Day was a winner, since it has meant people around the world following an Indian practice in a way that enhances our global image (though the manner in which the Government subsequently pursued the Guinness Book of World Records over the issue was, to put it mildly, unseemly).
That, alas, is the extent of the positive side of the ledger, where the PM’s efforts have borne tangible results. For the rest, the report card is decidedly troubling.
India’s foreign policy appears to many observers to be created impromptu on the hoof, as it were, in the course of the Prime Minister’s peripatetic travels. Key discussions which should have taken place in the preparation of these visits seem to follow the Prime Minister’s pronouncements, rather than precede and justify them. The announcements, usually of investments to come, have largely failed to materialize. And stated goals, such as those accompanying the impressive India-African Summit in New Delhi or the bold promises of $100 billion in Chinese investments during Xi Jinping's visit in September 2014, do not seem to be accompanied by the investment of adequate resources to fulfil them, or co-ordination with various government agencies to achieve their announced goals.
The Summit showcased this government’s tendency to see such occasions as events to be well-managed, rather than part of a strategy requiring meticulous implementation. And the latter, was eventually watered down to $30 billion, served with an embarrassing side of incursions by the PLA, audaciously while Xi was still on Indian soil.
Indeed, the External Affairs Ministry does not appear to be involved in much serious follow-up work to the PM’s tours, so that they remain one-off events rather than part of a planned grand design for Indian foreign policy. Fundamental decisions are taken in the PMO, if not by the Prime Minister himself, along with his National Security Adviser. And while the External Affairs Minister is herself a respected and widely-liked politician, her role in the formulation of foreign policy appears to be so tightly circumscribed that diplomats in Delhi have taken to referring to her, with a smile, as the Minister for Consular Affairs. Her time seems to be spent in helping Indians who have lost their passports abroad and Pakistanis needing heart surgery in India—not to mention with the totally pointless effort to splurge taxpaying money to secure Hindi as an official language at the United Nations.
To be continued. Read the second part of a three-part series by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor on the Modi Government’s foreign policy tomorrow
Read the full article in the April 8 issue of National Herald on Sunday (E-paper also available)
The writer is the Congress MP for Thiruvananthapuram, a former minister of state in the Government of India for External Affairs. He has also served the United Nations as its Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information