Vol. XL No. 43 October 23, 2016

Indian Diplomacy Missed the BRICS Plot in Goa

M K Bhadrakumar

THIS year has been controversial for India’s ‘multilateral diplomacy’. The SAARC summit, which was originally scheduled for November in Islamabad, got scuttled, thanks to India’s boycott.

Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have since clarified that they too sought postponement of the summit in Islamabad, but for reasons other than ‘terrorism’. So has Afghanistan. Nepal regrets the postponement of the summit and wants an early re-scheduling. Maldives keeps silent. India draws satisfaction Pakistan’s credential to put on the mantle of regional leadership even by rotation has been disputed. 

Within the month, India almost derailed yet another multilateral process, which is far more profound to world politics than SAARC – the two-day BRICS summit that concluded in Goa last Sunday. Again, ironically, the elephant in the room took over – Pakistan. India got agitated against two out of its four BRICS partners on account of their perceived and real relationships with Pakistan.

To one interlocutor, Russia, India held out the carrot, while, in regard of the other – China – things deteriorated into an unpleasant public spat. Sensing how much crucial the income from arms exports is to the Russian economy, which is in distress due to western sanctions, India fast-tracked at breakneck speed certain multi-billion dollar arms deals. These arms deals, ironically, turned out to be the big media headlines out of Goa.

India expects Russia to be eternally grateful. While that may be too much to expect and will be ignoring Russian diplomatic ingenuity to walk the fine line, Moscow may accommodate New Delhi by slowing down the optics of its nascent strategic ties with Islamabad so as to not ruffle Indian feathers.

On the other hand, New Delhi has displayed certain ‘toughness’ in the China policies under Prime Minister Modi’s stewardship, which initially kept Beijing guessing but seems to be producing a backlash from Beijing lately. The signs began appearing in the run-up to the BRICS summit. The ‘hard line’ in India’s China policies began some two years ago,but lately through the past year, they have become apparent. The Modi government is willing to mothball India’s ties with China unless the latter re-calibrated its regional policies in deference to Indian sensitivities as the pre-eminent regional power in South Asia.

At its most obvious level, the issue concerns China’s close ties with Pakistan, which is lately assuming the nature of a regional alliance, thanks to the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The CPEC is regarded as the flagship of Beijing’s so-called One Belt One Road Initiative, which India views with suspicion as designed to promote Chinese strategies as a global power.

To be sure, China will not and cannot oblige, and even ahead of the bilateral summit meeting in Goa on Saturday, it took care to notify Delhi that its stance would not shift. Any chill in India-China relations can make the BRICS tent rather uncomfortable. As a Russian expert noted last week, “It’s no secret that Russia, India and China are the three pillars of BRICS.”

At any rate, the government’s preoccupations over India’s relations with Russia, China and Pakistan – plus the issue of terrorism – effectively became the leitmotif of the BRICS event in Goa. Multilateral processes such as BRICS are highly selective in choosing their participants and if the participants do not enjoy good vibes amongst themselves, the negative vibes obstruct constructive and productive interaction.

Therefore, mature and responsible countries try to insulate the multilateral events from being over-burdened with extraneous issues. The host countries go to extraordinary extent to take care that the multilateral event fulfils its agenda, free of distractions. However, India has chosen the ‘Bharatiya Janata Party path’ – scandalise the interlocutors until theylost their presence of mind, hung their head in shame and capitulated or were silenced. India’s approach is illogical. When neither Russia nor China is putting pre-conditions regarding their BRICS partner’s ‘defining partnership of the 21st century’ with the United States, how could India arrogate to itself the prerogative to dictate their terms of engagement with Pakistan? 

By hosting the BRICS summit, India was presented with a rare opportunity to showcase its leadership role in the world arena as an emerging power and an aspiring permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. But, ironically, Prime Minister Modi preferred trademark rhetoric and grandstanding – possibly, with the domestic audience in view – where he feels in his elements. It is unclear whether he was even cognisant of the supreme importance of not detracting attention from the BRICS event, especially when India got the honour of chairmanship of the forum. The issues of terrorism or India-Pakistan tensions should not have been mixed up at all with the main agenda of the BRICS event.




The BRICS holds seamless potential to offer a new blueprint of contemporary political and economic system. Any fact sheet on the BRICS economies would testify to the group’s immense potential. The BRICS countries account for 40 percent of the world’s population, 20 percent of the world’s GDP – more importantly, 40 percent of the growth rate of the world economy – and 20 percent of all world trade. The BRICS has been steadily gaining traction. The creation of the BRICS bank and the strategic reserve fund were major achievements. The group had also begun venturing into the political arena, voicing opinions upholding international law and the UN Charter and taking up bold positions questioning the US’ interventionist policies.

The BRICS presents a unique threat to the US insofar as while all its member countries regard their respective bilateral ties with the US as hugely consequential, they are also collectively challenging the US’ hegemony by questioning the post-Cold War era financial and political institutions that provided the foundation for the western dominance of the world order. In sheer intellectual terms, BRICS is a startlingly bold idea – a group of emerging powers challenging the established order by presenting an alternative vision and aiming to realise it but without being confrontational. This ‘Gandhian’ approach is a poignant reminder that the so-called Thucydides’ Trap is not necessarily inevitable as the world order takes new shape. The Greek historian’s metaphor has been a constant warning against attendant dangers when rising powers rival a ruling power.

Therefore, if India neglects the BRICS at the present historic juncture, it may be doing a great favour to the US. The heart of the matter is that it was entirely within India’s prerogative to turn the summit in Goa into a defining moment in BRICS’ rising stature on the global stage – that is, if only India had properly used its stature as the host country to propose new initiatives. The tendencies of multi-polarity are strengthening; the western economies that dominated the world stage in modern history are in disarray; US’ pre-eminence cannot prevent new power centres from emerging and, consequently, its capacity to enforce its will is steadily diminishing; the locus of growth in the world economy is shifting away from the G7 countries. There is urgency for BRICS to position itself as an architect of the new world order.

It is useful to recall that the germane seeds of the BRICS bank, an institution that changed the ABC of developmental financing and is so much admired today, were actually sown by India. But that seems light years away. Prime Minister Modi expounds a ‘development agenda’. Yet it is astonishing why India failed to propose at the Goa summit any innovative ideas in the BRICS processes focused on the fields of trade and investment and infrastructure development. The prime minister, by virtue of occupying the chairmanship of the BRICS summit was in a privileged position to drive India’s own agenda of increasing investment in its priority projects, especially in infrastructure development (which also generates jobs in large numbers), and discussing trade barriers. But, regrettably, India seemed disinterested, distracted and disconnected.

A mechanism to resolve issues relating to non-tariff barriers in trade between the BRICS countries could have been another initiative. Least of all, India could have used the platform of the Goa summit to showcase its own achievements and to invite investment. That is to say, while steering the BRICS in the right direction, India could as well have reaped benefits domestically. Couldn’t India have proposed far-reaching initiatives in the field of energy – renewable energy, for instance, which is linked to climate change? Again, BRICS includes Russia, an energy superpower, and China and India, two major energy consuming countries. It was left to Russian President Vladimir Putin to point out at the summit in Goa, "It is necessary to put into action an initiative for creating a foundry industry union, project on data processing centre and electronic data storage on professional personnel training. It is important to develop an initiative for creating the BRICS energy agency."

The Goa Declaration adopted at the summit on Sunday may give the appearance of a weighty document but in realityit is largely a reiteration of previous documents, and, in fact, in comparison with the Ufa Declaration adopted at the BRICS summit in Russia in July last year, it is even at places a watered-down version while articulating on political issues – Palestinian problem, for instance. This is despite the fact that international tensions have increased during the past year due to continued attempts by the US and its allies to flout international law and the UN Charter and violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen and creating new tensions in the Asia-Pacific and Eurasia. 

As an emerging power, India is a stakeholder in the historic role of BRICS as a counterweight to the Western-dominated geopolitical and economic order. BRICS has every potential to emerge as a powerful alternative to the G7 group of western countries within the G20. In fact, the evolution of the BRICS into an association of global significance can only contribute to the strengthening of India’s relations with Russia and China.

At the end of the day, the Goa Declaration failed to adopt the Indian viewpoints with regard to cross-border terrorism or State-sponsored terrorism. The document dwelt at length on the menace of international terrorism but was glaring in its omission of any reference, even oblique ones, to Pakistan – Prime Minister Modi’s forceful interventions on the topic through the period of the two-day summit in Goa notwithstanding. In sum, India neglected the main plot of the summit to concentrate on a sub-plot – Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism – which ultimately got brushed aside as irrelevant to the BRICS agenda. The Indian diplomacy has some explaining to do why such a road accident took place.



Interestingly, last week at a colloquium in Beijing, Chinese think tankers candidly applied themselves to the ‘BRICS question’. Some of the views expressed are highly revealing:

·         BRICS is in need of ‘restructuring’ for transforming it as a voice on global challenges.

·         A BRICS free trade area would be “a significant form of cooperation”.

·         BRICS will face difficulties if member countries cannot ‘energise’ their economies.

·         More countries should be brought into the BRICS mechanism in order to ‘rejuvenate’ it.

·         “The Belt and Road Initiative could replace BRICS, as the actions of the institution are showing a slowdown trend.” (Emphasis added.)

·         BRICS should also act “as a political force in global decision-making”.

·         BRICS should “increase its political presence” by fostering greater trade and tourism among member-countries.

Clearly, a measure of dissatisfaction with the way things are going becomes apparent from the above. China will be hosting the BRICS summit next year in September. President Xi Jinping said that at the summit next year, China hopes to “open a new chapter” in BRICS’ advancement.

The big question is whether India continues to be genuinely interested in BRICS at all. When the idea of BRICS was first mooted ten years ago at an informal meeting in Russia, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warmed up to the idea, sensing the raison d’etre of such a platform of emerging powers in the contemporary world situation and foreseeing that India’s medium and long-term interests would be served by participating in it. Equally, the UPA government created synergy out of the BRICS processes in such a way that it also had positive fallout on India’s relations with China. In fact, as India and China began working together on the BRICS platform, they began realising that they had more in common than what separated them by way of differences.

The Modi government, on the contrary, has adopted an adversarial outlook toward China. There has been a pronounced ‘tilt’ in the Indian policies toward the US’ pivot strategy in Asia during the past two-year period. The Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific issued by Prime Minister Modi and the visiting US President Barack Obama in January 2015 testifies to it. For some incomprehensible reason, India inserted itself into the South China Sea disputes. Evidently, Sino-Indian ties are under considerable stress at present and tensions have been steadily building up. Thus, it was only to be expected that India’s sense of participation in the BRICS process has significantly waned under the present government.

This, of course, is precisely what Washington likes to see happening. The recent ‘regime change’ in Brazil and the pressure building up on the ANC government in South Africa from a coalition of opposition parties cannot be mere coincidence. Analysts have noted a pattern here. Make no mistake, Dilma Rousseff’s overthrow in Brazil and the ascendancy of right-wing forces in that country was the handiwork of the US intelligence. Similarly, it is more than a coincidence that a ‘regime change’ agenda is also appearing on the horizon in South Africa, another BRICS country. The opposition coalition in South Africa enjoys covert backing from the US. The US’ calculation could be that if Brazil and South Africa are brought under pro-West governments, BRICS gets weakened. The US strategy seems to be to undermine the BRICS by paralysing it incrementally from within.

Why should India fall prey to the US strategy to debilitate BRICS? Yet, influential sections of Indian elites are up in arms against BRICS and miss no opportunity to debunk the forum and to question why India should form part of it. Some of this may go to explain the government’s lukewarm attitude towards BRICS. The summit in Goa largely turned into a theatre for Pakistan-bashing.

The Goa summit had presented the government with a great opportunity to announce to the world audience that India was much more than the aggregate of terrorist attacks in Pathankot and Uri or cross-border terrorism. India could have generated enormous ‘soft power’ that would have been a strategic asset for the country to stake its claim more convincingly while negotiating its due share of the pie in the world order or as a mature and responsible regional power.

Alas, Modi government lacked the ‘big picture’ and settled for the role of a bit player. In the ultimate analysis, the temptation became too much to do grandstanding. The India-Pakistan tensions have an optic in India’s domestic politics. The ‘surgical strikes’ have been projected as the manifestation of a ‘New India’ – under a ‘different’ and ‘muscular’leader – which the ruling party hopes to exploit in the forthcoming state assembly elections. The jingoism may help distract attention away from a bleak economic landscape. When diplomacy gets reduced to being an adjunct to domestic politics to embellish the image of the ruling party or the persona of the incumbent prime minister, the larger national interests get neglected. This was what happened in Goa. The BRICS lost its way on Goa’s sandy beaches.