Modi’s neighbourhood policy: Chronicling four wasted years
Mani Shankar Aiyar
On May 26, 2014, while the media applauded and Indian, South Asian and world opinion welcomed Narendra Modi’s innovative move to invite heads of state/government from all South Asian governments to the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan to witness his coronation – sorry, his taking the oath as the next prime minister of India – I was perhaps alone in being frankly appalled.
For it seemed such an imitation of the Delhi Durbar summoned in 1911 by the Laat Sahib, Viceroy Lord Hardinge of Penhurst, to pay obeisance to George V, King-Emperor of India. It was perhaps at that moment that I first realised that Modi was not so much a PM but an EM – a master events manager who could hoodwink the brightest and the best to think this invitation represented policy when all it amounted to was chutzpah and glitz.
Yet, instead of feeling insulted, it seems this bevy of South Asian leaders were so thrilled to be invited that they were ready to sit out the function in the blistering May heat because they thought Modi represented a new beginning in India’s relationship with her immediate neighbours.
The first to be conned was Nawaz Sharif, the then prime minister of Pakistan.
Modi began his odyssey of serial hugging by first grabbing Nawaz Sharif to his ’56-inch chest’ while simultaneously assuring him that the stalled India-Pakistan dialogue would receive a mighty impetus in the new golden age of South Asian cooperation that was dawning.
For his part, Nawaz Sharif so enthusiastically welcomed the initiative that he forgot to put the standard clichés about Kashmir into the text of the joint statement. And although he drew some flak at home for this lapse, the overall sentiment in Pakistan was that Modi was the best thing that had happened to them since at least Morarji Desai.
I was intrigued at this enthusiastic welcome for a hardcore Sanghi, and so availed of a visit to Pakistan a fortnight later to check on what made them so euphoric about the change of regime in India. I traced it to what one might call the Nixon syndrome. Intelligent, well-informed Pakistanis, including former foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri, patiently explained to me that even as it took a hardcore right-wing Nixon, who had made anti-China ranting his political stock-in-trade, and was, therefore, able to “sell” to his core political base his sudden and startling outreach to Mao Tse Tung, so would a tough RSS-type like Modi do far better than his predecessors in making a deal with Pakistan that would stick.
I tried to say that any forward movement with Pakistan would undercut and undermine the anti-Muslim fuel on which the Sangh parivar’s engine runs, but my Pakistani friends brushed the point aside. Modi, the Deliverer, had, they believed, arrived!
It was announced that the India-Pakistan composite dialogue (by whatever name called) would be resumed with an initial meeting between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan in the third week of August 2014. My Pakistani friends appeared to be winning the argument. It seemed that out of prejudice against Modi and the BJP, I had misread the situation.
Then, on August 8, an innocuous item appeared in the papers, tucked away deep in an inside page, that, in the preparation for the resumed dialogue, the Pakistan High Commissioner, Abdul Basit, would be meeting at Pakistan House, New Delhi, with a delegation of Hurriyat leaders. This, by then, had become so routine that not even Arnab Goswami had his nightly dose of apoplexy. A decade earlier, the first BJP premier, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had given the green signal for meetings between the Hurriyat and Pakistani notables in New Delhi after it had been explained to him, and he had agreed, that the credibility of Pakistan maintaining dialogue with Delhi rested on giving the Pakistan public at least the appearance that its representatives were keeping the Hurriyat in the loop.
High Commissioner Basit had scheduled the get-together on August 18, that is, the eve of the Indian foreign secretary’s departure for Islamabad. Suddenly, foreign secretary Sujata Singh received instructions from up high to summon the Pakistan HC and tell him in no uncertain terms that if he went ahead with meeting the Hurriyat she would not be taking off for Islamabad. And with that, the unconsummated honeymoon ended. As whimsically as the process had begun in May 2014, equally whimsically it was terminated less than a 100 days later.
And the whimsicality continued at the Kathmandu SAARC summit in November 2014. In an act of calculated discourtesy, Modi ostentatiously held a magazine in front of his face as Nawaz Sharif passed by him to go to the podium to address the meeting. Then, as Barkha Datt discovered, he had a secret tryst with Sharif in a hotel room arranged by Sharif’s business partner, Sajjan Jindal.
The personalisation of foreign policy had begun, ending the well-established institutionalised practice of trained diplomatic experts carefully preparing the ground before the last leg of the trek to the summit begins. This personalisation has proved the bane of four years of foreign and neighbourhood policy under Modi. The external affairs minister, the hapless Sushma Swaraj, has been marginalised as never before, while the nuts and bolts of everyday diplomacy have been outsourced to a retired spook, with the Foreign Secretary reduced to acting as the policeman’s handmaiden.
There followed the Ufa summit in the Russian Federation the following year. With no preparatory arrangements made whatsoever, Modi had his next meeting with Sharif. Triumphantly, Modi and his coterie flaunted a joint communiqué that announced a visit to New Delhi by Pakistan’s National Security Adviser and de facto foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, the very next month – August 2015 – to kickstart a resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue.
Disruption followed almost immediately because Team Modi started publicly claiming that this was an unprecedented Modi victory because only terrorism would be on the agenda, not Kashmir. Inevitably, a huge row broke out in Pakistan, leading, as day to the night, to Sartaj calling off the visit. Flop Number Two.
Modi then sat briefly on a sofa with Sharif at the Paris Climate Change conference. There followed a flurry of activity. The two NSAs met in Bangkok and hastily put together a road-map. Sushma Swaraj was briefly resurrected to fetch up in Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference and mutter a few sweet nothings.
Suddenly, a few days later, as Modi flew out of Kabul on Christmas Day, it was announced that his flight was not heading to Delhi but landing at Lahore – another personal triumph for ’56 inches’ of diplomacy. The sheer drama of it had our ever-triviality obsessed media falling over themselves. What a Great Man this Modi, spontaneously dropping in on his great chum Sharif to wish him on the birthday he shares with Jesus Christ and giving his blessings to Sharif’s grand-daughter on the eve of holy matrimony. Again, no prior preparation, just personalised stuntsmanship masquerading as statesmanship.
In consequence, within a week, a helpful police official gave a lift to a bunch of Pakistani terrorists searching for the way to the hopelessly insecure air force station at Pathankot. A horrified India awoke on New Year’s Day to the news of yet another Pakistani terrorist attack – this time on a highly sensitive military complex.
Either the Sharif government was complicit – in which case advance intelligence inputs should have been obtained, and discreet diplomatic soundings made, before precipitately bursting in on the Sharif household. Or the Pak government was not complicit, in which case breaking the dialogue before it had begun was a self-goal that left India-Pakistan relations hostage to any nut-case Pakistani seeking 72 houries in the next world by slipping across the border and rubbing out a couple of kafirs. Of course, the third possibility was that the Nawaz Sharif government was just not in control, in which case why drop in on a clueless Prime Minister?
Instead of soundly running foreign policy through sober, institutionalised mechanisms, it is the misuse of foreign affairs to build a personality cult that has been at the root of the Modi Diplomatic Disaster in South Asia. Nothing has been achieved because the ground has never been carefully prepared. A sudden summit is fine to start a process. But what should follow is a carefully crafted process of discreet preparation that quietly settles most issues, leaving, by mutual agreement, one or two points open for the two heads of state/government to resolve when they meet – of course, to wild applause from their countrymen and women.
But as Modi wants all the credit for himself, he remains a general with no foot soldiers, and so comes a cropper each and every time he makes a dramatic gesture in the name of diplomatic innovation. He is unable to see foreign policy beyond the photo-op.
The next major development in India’s tortured relations with Pakistan came in the wake of Uri with Modi’s “surgical strike”. It was reported that terrorist “launch pads” in Pakistan had been taken out. (Launch pads? Surely launch pads are for ballistic missiles? Since when have abandoned Bakarwal huts been elevated to “launch pads”?) And with what results?
Modi recently claimed that the strikes so scared the Pakistanis they wouldn’t even come on the phone line to talk to us! But if the surgical strikes did scare the daylights out of the Pakistanis, then would the PM kindly explain why ever since more Indian civilians have been killed in cross-border firing and more jawans martyred in the last two years than in the entire decade of Dr Manmohan Singh’s government? Why has there been more cross-border infiltration? Why more terrorist incursions? Simply because the surgical strikes, however dramatic at that moment, seem to have deterred nothing since. They have only aggravated Pakistan’s disproportionate retaliation.
We are no nearer the resolution of any issue with Pakistan than we were on 26 May 2014. It is only once the government changes, hopefully after the next Lok Sabha elections, that responsible diplomacy might have a chance.
The next target for Modi’s ministrations was Nepal. He landed in Kathmandu a few weeks after the swearing-in ceremony in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan.
What a reception he was accorded! All along the road, everywhere he went, the cutest children in the world – who are undoubtedly the children of Nepal – were lined up waving Indian and Nepali flags: “It was roses, roses all the way/With myrtle mixed in his path like mad” (Robert Browning). Modi and his team, continuing his election campaign even after becoming PM, repeatedly underlined that Modi had arrived in Nepal within weeks of becoming PM whereas his predecessor had not visited Nepal even once during his decade-long tenure.
What was not mentioned was that through the period of Dr Singh’s term, Nepal had not been able to stitch together a constitution and, given what appeared to be a virtual three-way ethnic divide between the dominant Khas-Arya, the Adibasi-janajati and the Madhesi-Tharu, overlaid (at least in the Indian perception) by issues between the Paharis and the plainspeople of the Terai, it would have been highly imprudent for an Indian PM to be seen or portrayed as taking sides in the ever-shifting sands of the country’s fractious politics that had seen nine PMs come and go in as many years.
Modi, on the other hand, had every intention of meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs, as was shortly to be revealed – and that too with the naked aim of influencing the then upcoming state assembly elections in Bihar, a state that that celebrates its roti-beti relations with the plains region of Nepal, the Terai. For it was known to all and sundry that Modi would be undertaking a second visit to Kathmandu just a few months later – in November 2014 – for the SAARC summit. So, having beguiled the Nepalese with his goodwill blitzkrieg on his first visit, he then asked to make his second visit in November by road, going first to Janakpur, the birthplace of Sita, and also taking in the Muktinath temple in the vicinity of Mustang before finally reaching the Nepalese capital for the SAARC summit.
At first, the Nepalese government played along, but as further demands began pouring in, first to hold a public rally in Janakpur, followed by the distribution of ten thousand bicycles to Nepali girl students, many of whose parents would shortly be seeking bridegrooms in Bihar, the Nepalese awoke to the horror of being used as cats-paws in an Indian state election. They turned down Jankapur, they turned down Mustang, and they turned down the proposed road journey that would have been trailed by truck-loads of BJP followers pouring into the Terai, and asked Modi to land directly in Kathmandu like all other South Asian leaders coming for the Summit.
In November the following year (2015), he got the opportunity he was seeking to avenge himself. After nine years of internecine wrangling among parties and factions, that saw prime ministers and governments come and go through the revolving door of Nepal politics, the Nepalese Constituent Assembly suddenly closed ranks and, by an overwhelming majority, adopted a constitution. A vast majority of the Madhesi representatives voted for the motion, especially as they were assured that the incoming Parliament would continue to function as a constituent assembly for any amendments any member might wish to bring for the consideration of the House.
Nevertheless, Modi, furious that he had been thwarted, sought to prevent the constitution, as adopted, from being proclaimed. He even had the temerity to send his favourite foreign secretary, relabelled as the PM’s “special envoy”, to bully the Nepalese legislature and government into postponing the proclamation of the Constitution till Modi’s desires had been fulfilled. It was a most egregious example of gross interference in the internal affairs of another independent state.
Little wonder, the Nepalese were astounded, then shocked, then appalled at his blatant violation of their sovereignty. How would we have reacted to, say, Mountbatten fetching up in Delhi on January 24, 1950, to order us to not go ahead with proclaiming our constitution two days later? Given the special envoy’s manner, bearing and message, one Nepal newspaper compared him to Lord Curzon!
Modi’s outrageous demand was rejected – and the Nepalese went ahead and ceremonially proclaimed their hard-fought Constitution, as scheduled.
Team Modi retaliated almost instantly. They both encouraged and were complicit in a vicious months-long blockade of land-locked Nepal that disrupted supplies of even essential food items and medicines, as also of petroleum products, adding immeasurably to the misery of the ordinary people of Nepal who were still recovering from the trauma of the earthquake that had devastated their country a few weeks earlier.
Modi seemed not to realise that in his Nepalese counterpart, K.P. Sharma Oli, hardened by 14 continuous years in prison from 1973 to 1987, he had more than met his match. Oli responded by ratcheting up Nepal’s relationship with China, signing ten agreements with Beijing, including a trade and transit agreement that ended India’s monopoly control over Nepal’s external communications, and opening the way to a railway that would connect China with Nepal through Tibet. Oli then went on to conciliate his Nepalese communist rivals and consolidate his long-standing relations with the people of the plains.
While other parties squabbled and bickered over petty issues, Oli single-mindedly worked towards victory in the three tiers of election promised by the constitution in sequence at the local, provincial and federal level – this despite being ousted from the premiership in a political coup in which several Nepalese commentators suspected an Indian hand.
At each of the three levels, Oli triumphed, with the plainspeople in all but Province no.2 widely supporting him. Thus he emerged as the undisputed leader of Nepal, uniting the communists into a single political entity and hence assured of retaining his office for at least another five years.
Modi has had to bow to the inevitable. He has visited Nepal to “reset” India-Nepal relations, relations that needed resetting only because he had so thoroughly wrecked them in the first place. The mood in Nepal was succinctly summed up in a placard that said, “Welcome, Modi, but we haven’t forgotten the blockade”.
With Bangladesh, the summum bonum of the relationship is Modi doing no more than signing an agreement earlier negotiated by previous governments, on the demarcation of the land boundary, including the hotly contested Teen Bigha enclaves. The far more important Teesta river issues continue to fester.
But the worst negative development is the amendment to the Citizenship Act the Modi government is attempting to push through to fulfill Modi’s wholly communal promise to allow non-Muslim Bangladesh-origin immigrants to secure entitlement to Indian citizenship while placing severe discriminatory restrictions on Bangladeshi Muslims, especially as this is bound to rebound on wholly legitimate Assam-born and Assam-resident Muslims, whose share in the state’s population is the second-largest (after J&K) of any state of the Union.
The move has not only severely divided the Barak valley of Assam from the Brahmaputra valley, political temperatures in the Brahmaputra valley have soared to the point that a repetition of the horrors that preceded Rajiv Gandhi’s Assam accord of 1985 appears to be on the cards. Even the BJP CM of Assam is openly distressed. Bangladesh, of course, is seething. Unless this wholly unwise move is stoppered, India-Bangladesh relations are sure to plummet.
Moreover, the wholly Hasina-centric and Khaleda-phobic bias in our Bangladesh policy has not been even marginally reset, entailing the danger of an unraveling of India-Bangladesh relations if regime change were to occur – an ever-present possibility in a democracy (and even worse were there to be a coup).
Doklam has signalled the inflexion point in our relations with Bhutan, the first South Asian country Modi visited with much hype and fanfare. While Modi’s musclemen skewed up the tension, our professional diplomats were mercifully left to their devices to defuse the situation. Wuhan represented Modi’s acceptance of the inevitable. The Chinese are now at Doklam to stay. But in the meanwhile, we have given Bhutan such a fright that India-Bhutan relations have, perhaps forever, lost the even tenor that has characterised our relations with this key neighbour since Independence.
Bhutan, especially after Modi’s bumblings, is itching to free itself of its abject dependence on India, especially in matters of international relations. As a bright young new generation Bhutanese commentator, Tenzing Lamsang, has remarked, Bhutan’s existential dilemma is that it has to “avoid both the fire from the Dragon and the Elephant tusks in our soft underbelly”!
More disturbingly, our economic relations with Bhutan are also fraught with raging, if muted, argument over hydroelectric projects, their management and their pricing.
In 2008, Dr Manmohan Singh, on what the Bhutan press hailed as a “historic visit” to Bhutan, won all hearts by dramatically doubling the promise to Bhutan of “5000 MW by 2020” to “10,000 MW by 2020”. The impact of this doubling may be measured by recalling that the current Chukka (1800 MW) and Tala (1400 MW) projects are generating 60 percent of Bhutan’s government revenues and about a quarter of the country’s GDP. Ten thousand MW more of hydropower would take Bhutan into the South-east Asia league!
While work was initiated on ten identified hydropower projects to give teeth to Dr Singh’s promise, under Modi so many unilateral reservations and conditions have been sought to be imposed on Bhutan that, effectively, the “10,000 MW by 2020” pledge has been whittled down to “6467 MW by 2022”. It hasn’t helped either that Piyush Goyal and his successors in India’s power ministry have been proclaiming India’s imminent self-sufficiency in power. What then, ask the bewildered Bhutanese, will we do with our only real development resource, the electricity we generate from our rivers?
Such shameful backtracking has been brought about by Modi’s India switching the funding pattern from 60 percent grant and 40 percent loan on easy terms to 30 percent grant and 70 percent loans at augmented rates of interest; insisting on four of the projects (Chamkarchhu, Khorongchhu, Wangchhu and Bonakaha, planned to generate 2120 MW) from being Bhutan-owned enterprises (as in the previous case of Chukka and Tala) and becoming instead joint ventures with Indian PSUs holding 51% of the stake and securing “more managerial control”. There is thus a deadlock on terms of financing.
Also, where the 2006 protocol to the inter-governmental agreement on the massive Sunkosh (2560 MW) and Kuri Gongri (2640 MW) projects solemnly and unambiguously categorised these as “inter-governmental projects”, Modi’s cohort has been demanding that the these two key projects (that are not run-of-the-river but reservoir projects and, therefore, a guarantee of year-round electricity supply) be put in the category of India-dominated joint ventures.
To add insult to injury, disquiet in Bhutan reached fever pitch when the Modi government, without consulting Bhutan, issued on December 5, 2016, its Guidelines for Cross-Border Trade in Electricity (CBTE). The guidelines
– curtail the types of investment permitted in hydropower projects in Bhutan if the output were to be sold in India (the main export market for a country whose major hope for development is hydropower; it also effectively debars Bhutan’s sovereign Druk Holding and Investments from investing without a majority-holding Indian partner in their own hydropower sector, while closing the Indian market to Bhutan’s own Punatsangchhu I&II power);
– insist that Bhutan keeps its tariff at the lower end (India buys Chukka and Tala power at about a sixth of the price it charges Indian consumers!); and
– restrict Bhutan’s entry into the Indian energy trading market to secure higher prices for its electricity (to forestall any further development of Bhutan’s initial success in competing in the Indian energy market for118 MW Nikachhu electricity)
Little wonder then that the gentle and ever-courteous prime minister of Bhutan found himself obliged to mildly protest that Modi’s Guidelines “essentially restrict” Bhutan’s options for the development of its hydropower potential “and give the Indian government a strong say over Bhutan’s hydropower future”.
Does this not sound like Dadabhai Naoroji denouncing colonial economic policy in the House of Commons circa 1890?
Of course, an alternative (if smaller) market for Bhutan’s electricity is Bangladesh, a nation whose development needs make it so desperate for power that, under the overall aegis of the SAARC Framework Agreement for Energy Cooperation, Bangladesh offered to fund the 1125 MW Dorjilung power project and buy the entire output to be transmitted to Bangladesh through India. Modi put his foot down on such trilateral cooperation. So much for friendship with neighbours!
Under Modi, we leaned on Bhutan to sign the South Asia Motor Vehicles Agreement even after the Bhutanese Parliament had rejected it. The retaliation came when Bhutan refused to sign up on the Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal connectivity accord that the Modi government was determinedly promoting.
Unless we shed all machismos and start treating Bhutan as a fully sovereign, independent country, we run the risk of Bhutan going the Nepal way.
Despite having tried to acquire a high profile in Sri Lankan affairs with a view to contributing to a resolution of the island’s deep ethnic divide between Tamils and Sinhalas that spills over to Tamil Nadu, India remains a sidelined player. This, of course, is largely owing to the Modi government’s total inability to win the confidence of any section of the Sri Lankan polity. Indeed, as a perceptive observer of the Sri Lankan scene, has remarked, “every stakeholder in Sri Lanka looks at India with suspicion, both behind and beyond our shoulders”.
It is a measure of the hollowness of the claims initially made that, as the new face of India, Modi was going to prove the prime mover and shaker of Sri Lankan affairs, that India has been rendered redundant in the heroic long-term effort made by the Maithripala-Ranil government, under the umbrella of its National Policy for Reconciliation, and principally through the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation headed by former president Chandrika B. Kumaratunga, “to change the hearts, minds and attitudes of people of all communities, beginning with school children, University students and adults”, as also innovative initiatives like “Women for Reconciliation” to help war widows in the Tamil areas of the North and East, and Sinhala military widows in the south of the island.
Additional assistance to the Sri Lankan Tamil population has, of course, been announced by Narendra Modi on his visit to the North and East, but that does not amount to even icing on the cake. Merely popping up in exotic locations not visited by earlier Indian PMs does not amount to foreign policy.
The Chinese, meanwhile, have moved into Hambantota and not all the “Quads” in the world are going to displace them. The Indian Ocean is no longer our domestic lake. Perhaps it never was.
And that assessment is reinforced by the happenings in the Maldives. We have a government there that dislikes India quite as much as it loves the Chinese. Modi stands hapless before this “factuity”. Where once India’s Rajiv Gandhi was begged to come to the armed rescue of a besieged Maldivian government by the president himself (and acted with alacrity to save democracy from a military takeover even though he was in far-away Harare at the time), India under Modi counts for zilch at the very cross-roads of the Indian Ocean. China has arrived and the same Modi’s India that aspires to “Great Power” status in the world cannot make even a blade of grass move in its own backyard.
Ever since President Mohammed ‘Anni’ Nasheed was ousted in 2012, India has been in a dilemma as to whether to deal with the ground reality in the Maldives or continue searching in the sky for a rainbow to appear. The 2018 presidential election approaches and, barring a miracle, the Yameen regime will continue, especially since every possible contender is either barred from standing or locked behind bars. India’s preferred Maldivian, ex-president Nasheed, continues to seek asylum in the United Kingdom, and his Maldives Democratic Party therefore continues to stagnate in the doldrums.
Also, although the Commonwealth and the US have made threatening noises about democracy being murdered in the Maldives, [resident Yameen has simply walked out of the Commonwealth and cocked his snook at the US.
As N. Sathiya Moorthy, the ardent observer of the Maldives scene has remarked in an article in the South Asia Journal, Maldives has “once again reiterated even in its very own context the limitations of international diplomacy and big power politics to control and conduct events and developments in smaller/tiny nations than had been possible in an earlier era”. If that is the reality that the Western powers are having to swallow, can Modi’s India do better? Hardly – for sovereignty cannot be encroached upon except in extremis.
To protest the overthrow of democracy in the Maldives, Modi dropped his intention of including the Maldives in his South Asian neighbours tour programme. It was an empty gesture. The playing out of domestic politics in Maldives in the last four years has so marginalised India that it is difficult to say whether it is we who are isolating the Maldives or the Maldives who are isolating us!
It thus becomes imperative to answer Sathiya Moorthy’s burning question: has India under Modi “overdone its ‘pro-democracy’ position on Maldives to the point of making it look anti-Yameen and pro-Nasheed even more?” Until India objectively assesses its real capacity to influence political developments in the Maldives (at present, near zero), we will continue to lose influence and every step backwards by India will be matched by two steps forward by China.
SAARC, and hence South Asian cooperation, have suffered continuously under Modi’s watch. He won a Pyrrhic victory by sabotaging the Islamabad summit but everyone else wants the summit to be held – and that too in Islamabad, not elsewhere – so what the point Modi was trying to make remains obscure.
The forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan witnessed on 26 May 2014 a grand spectacle. The spectacle has proved empty of content. The only hope of South Asian solidarity lies in a change of government a year from now. Till then, one can only pray that things will not go from bad to even worse.
The writer is a member of the Congress party and a former MP and minister in the erstwhile UPA government.
This article was first published on The Wire on 26 May 2018.
Published on Lokaantar on 27 May 2018