Mr. Modi’s Milder World

I don’t know whether Narendra Modi will become prime minister — though I suspect so — and I don’t know whether he’s given much thought to foreign policy — my sense, is that he hasn’t beyond the economic dimension.

But I will argue that largely by chance he, or the next Indian prime minister, will inherit a less challenging neighbourhood than Manmohan Singh or even Atal Bihari Vajpayee faced. In other words, a Prime Minister Modi may not have to worry quite as much about foreign policy.

Here’s my arguments why:

CHINA. The main challenge Singh has faced has been increasingly erratic and unpredictable China. In the period from roughly 2007 onwards, Beijing has broken understandings, tested India in any number of ways, and generally made the New Delhi establishment almost obsessive about China.

The point is that unlike say Pakistan, China is a materially more substantive threat. It can militarily humiliate an Indian government and not leave New Delhi too many options when it comes to retaliation. The decision to raise a mountain strike force partly reflects this situation.

But this period of aggressive behaviour roughly coincided with the reign of Hu Jintao. The new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has signalled loudly that he wants a more stable relationship, presumably for his own domestic reasons.

Depsang is a major blemish on this record. But if that proves an aberration, Modi will be faced with a China eager to invest and trade with India — and not much else.

PAKISTAN. This is a somewhat more difficult state of affairs.

Pakistan has a tendency to inflict a terrorist or military hit on India almost irrespective of what the state of relations are. The Lahore bus gave birth to Kargil. Singh’s attempts to revive talks were killed off by 26/11. It almost doesn’t seem to matter what India does, Pakistan will give birth to some cross-border monster.

However, India has experienced a huge drop in violence along the Line of Control and a relative degree of calm in Kashmir since the 2003 LoC ceasefire was signed. The assumption has been that this was a consequence of the US military presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s redeployment of much of its army to its western border.

The recent spike in LoC and Kashmir violence, therefore, was tied to the US withdrawal. This withdrawal will be largely done by the end of this year. Should Modi expect a return to the bad old days pre-2003?

A year ago I would have said yes. But it now seems evident that the US will keep a residual Special Forces capacity that will unnerve Pakistan. More importantly, Islamabad’s hopes of installing a Taliban government in Kabul and achieving some sort of political neutralisation of the Tehreek e Taliban does not seem to be happening.

In other words, the Tehreek and an unfriendly Kabul regime should ensure Pakistan remains focussed on its west, giving India potentially another several years of breathing space. It remains to be seen, but Modi would benefit if that were the case.

OTHER NEIGHBOURS. In the past decade, two South Asian civil wars in Sri Lanka and Nepal have come to a close. Myanmar has opened up to trade. And India nearly came to a pathbreaking set of deal with Bangladesh. India’s neighbourhood has never been so good.

If Modi continues the “peaceful periphery” policies of Manmohan Singh he could consolidate these past gains and move India into a position of hegemony (in the good sense of the term) in South Asia and genuine integration with the Southeast Asian nations. A sidebar to that would be stabilizing the Northeastern area.

OTHER PARTS. The United States will remain a difficult relationship. This is not because Washington is hostile or because of the visa issue. It will be because Barack Obama is wildly disinterested in foreign policy in general. But the US will not be a strategic problem, it will be a relationship that will coast along — occasionally disrupted by the odd dispute but not one that is strategic in nature.

The Persian Gulf I see as more problematic. But the likelihood of a complete US withdrawal seems to be receding, as does the likelihood of an Israeli-Iranian conflict. Nonetheless, the geopolitical stability of the Gulf is uncertain and the region is set to stumble along. I would also be wary of the Shia-Sunni violence in the Fertile Crescent and its possible infection of India.

Nonetheless, my general conclusion is that Modi will inherit an external neighbourhood, especially the immediate one, that is far more peaceful or at least less hostile (or in the case of Pakistan still distracted) than his predecessors.

Copyright © 2014 the Hindustan Times.

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