Vol. XLIII No. 02 January 13, 2019

Time To Think Beyond Monroe Doctrine

B Arjun

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi has visited 92 countries since 2014. In sharp contrast, Manmohan Singh, his predecessor at the PMO    undertook only 93 foreign trips during his 10 years in office. The difference in number of diplomatic visits reflects the style and priorities of the two prime ministers. Manmohan Singh largely travelled to meet diplomatic commitments and obligations. Modi, the flamboyant of the two, has used the trips more for promoting his own brand than to achieve foreign policy goals.

His public relations (PR) managers have made sure that the foreign visits are adequately deployed to project him as a hard working prime minister who is constantly on the move to restore India’s glory abroad. They have tried to create his image as a global change-agent, capable of managing the regional order and balancing China, which is designed more to serve American than Indian interests.

The PR agents have desperately attempted to gain legitimacy for Modi’s regressive domestic policies through mega diaspora events at international venues where rock-stars perform under laser lights. NRI beauty queens, popular poets and PR experts are used as hosts to impact the minds of Indian voters. Similarly, live telecast of his interviews with the bigwigs in the Silicon Valley were carefully manipulated to project him as a man of science and technology. Modi may profess to be a gadget lover but he and his team’s understanding of cyber-imperialism emanating from America remains limited. China is considered to be the singular source causing cyber problems.

Modi’s engagement; inclination for foreign policy matters comes from his deep seated desire to play India’s next Nehru. Paradoxically, the RSS that has always blamed Nehru for stalling the right-wing takeover of Congress party and imbuing India’s political culture with pluralism and secularism, has secretly admired him as a mass leader who took India to the global high table.

The right wingers often feel that despite numerous failures on domestic policy front, Nehru could emerge as a statesman mainly because of his success in matters global. Atal Bihari Vajpayee desired to be BJP’s Nehru, but he failed to hit the mark. RSS did not find Advani good enough to fit the bill. Modi, the 56-inch mascot of the RSS, was conceived to be BJP’s Nehru, sans the red rose. But the problem was that Modi’s image of a street smart politician without much intellectual credentials and international standing was a hindrance. So, immediately after the electoral victory in 2014, a sincere effort was launched to change Modi’s international image and make him more acceptable to the world leaders.

Nehru had organised the first Asian Relations Conference in March - April 1947, where he gathered the Asian leaders to mark the formation of interim government in 1946 and to announce the emergence of Asia in postcolonial global politics. Imitating Nehru, Prime Minister Modi kick started his foreign policy drive by inviting all the leaders of member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to his swearing in ceremony held at the at the forecourt of the historic Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, in 2014. The Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom attended the ceremony at the forecourt of the historic Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina  of Bangladesh could not attend the meeting due to her prior commitment to visit Japan. The star attraction at the event was Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister of Pakistan who was accompanied by his advisor on national security and foreign secretary.

The gathering of SAARC leaders was touted as a foreign policy victory for India and to announce that Modi was not just the leader of India but of entire subcontinent. All this was done to build Modi-cult ‘tall enough’ to replace Nehru as the foreign policy God of India. But despite spending millions on Modi’s forays, the country has gained very little and nobody really knows the real value that our foreign policy establishment derived from this expensive venture. 

Such questions are especially pertinent mainly because India’s neighbourhood policy is in disarray. Modi’s charm is hardly working in the neighbourhood that is finding it extremely difficult to resist the Chinese investments. Take for example Bhutan; it wants New Delhi to be its “largest investor and business partner rather than being its largest developmental partner.”

Last year India dangerously launched a minor military operation at Doklam, a disputed area between Bhutan and China, primarily to ward off the growing Chinese influence in Bhutan. It lasted for 73 days and brought Sino-Indian relations closer to war. Despite the blatant use of corrosive diplomacy New Delhi has not succeeded in removing the Chinese military presence in the area nor has it doused the Bhutanese urges to seek “economic diversification” and share the “development dividend” offered by the Chinese, who are negotiating hard to open their embassy at Thimpu. 

The new Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa (DNT) under the leadership of Dr Lotay Tshering is focused on improving Bhutan’s economy and generating employment for its youth. This actually means that India would have to spend more money to keep the Chinese away from Bhutan. The question is for how long India will depend on money to manage SAARC countries. Recently, New Delhi promised financial assistance of $1.4 billion to the Maldives, to help the Indian Ocean island nation to repay the Chinese debt.

Modi’s cheque book diplomacy has a short shelf-life. It may impress America and few in India, but the fact remains that India does not have the surplus capital to venture out. There are far too many domestic issues that demand our finances. To appease America, India is not only spending on aid but also on weapons to meet the growing Chinese military presence in the area. Therefore, Modi government’s policy of trying to have favourable regimes in the region is flawed.

Modi’s external policy lacks long-term vision. It conveniently mixes the external with the internal to score brownie points over the opposition. The manner in which the secret military mission, now commonly known as surgical strikes, has been used to showcase Modi as a decisive leader is a case in point. Modi’s PMO is only interested in the quantity of decisions and not in their quality because the basic purpose is to grab headlines for achieving local political objectives rather than larger strategic goals. Take for example, the disastrous use of demonetisation merely to win UP elections.    

Modi’s election four years ago was an enormous shock to the Indian system. His reckless and whimsical policy decisions are unprecedented. He made an unplanned, visit to Pakistan to meet their prime minister, a gesture difficult to comprehend. Similarly, he overlooked the defence procurement process, Indian Air Force plans and unilaterally decided to buy 36 fighter jets from France when India was in the process of negotiating purchase of 126 jets.

He is now on a spending spree to out smart the Chinese, without calculating how much burden the Indian economy can bear and how will India use that influence to enhance its prosperity. It is time that India begins to look beyond the jaded Monroe doctrine to manage Sino-Indian competition in the region.