Modi sets regional agenda

Elected with a massive popular mandate not seen in the past thirty years, Narendra Modi took a bold foreign policy initiative even before he was sworn in as Prime Minister on 26 May 2014. The initiative did not emanate from the foreign policy mandarins in the South Block, but was mooted by advisers of the Prime Minister-designate. In addition to hastily drawing up the parameters of the Modi administration’s policy for India and her neighbours, it simultaneously outlined the regions of immediate strategic interest to India.

The invitation to the Heads of Government of member nations of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) for the swearing-in ceremony of the Indian Prime Minister was an unprecedented initiative. Myanmar was left out presumably because it is not a member of SAARC, but this relationship needs to be actively nurtured. Such a step immediately sent out a number of messages, the importance of which would not have been lost on observers.

It would have, in the first instance, signalled to officials in India’s Foreign Office that the new Prime Minister will take an active interest in foreign policy issues and is ready to engage and communicate directly with other world leaders’ advisers. These officials need to examine many relationships afresh and possibly develop new ones. Citing precedence or favouring the continuation of historical policies in bilateral relationships may no longer suffice. An unmistakable and strong message is that India’s new leaders will pay particular attention to India and prioritise her and her neighbours. In the present context this has particular strategic significance.

By inviting SAARC member-countries, India’s new Prime Minister has indicated that he is keen on promoting regional economic ties and giving bilateral relationships a substantive economic content. The invitation strongly suggests that India, as the biggest country with the largest and fastest growing economy in SAARC, is willing to tap into the existing economic potential of its neighbours and assist with their economic growth. It offers all these countries an opportunity to join in India’s growth and benefit from its development.

The impromptu gathering of South Asian leaders also effectively delivered another message. The attendance at the swearing-in ceremony of Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif and Sri Lanka’s Rajapakse unambiguously signalled that India’s foreign policy would be agreed centrally and not held hostage by local political considerations or state governments. The ruling BJP’s majority in parliament emphasised this by giving New Delhi a high degree of flexibility in drafting foreign policy.

The gathering afforded Modi and his new External Affairs Minister an opportunity, albeit brief, to interact with the SAARC leaders and familiarise themselves with them. Indications are that they took the opportunity to outline their foreign policy and clearly spell out India’s national and security interests. The meetings with the Sri Lankan and Nepalese leaders are also said to have been frank. Following the terrorist attack on the Indian Consulate in Herat in southern Afghanistan, India’s troubled relationship with Pakistan and the contentious issue of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism dominated the meeting. Launched by Hafez Sayed’s Lashkar-e-Tayeba (LeT), the Pakistan-based terrorist unit, and trained and financed by the Pakistani Army, the terror attack was launched at 3.40 am on 22 May, four days prior to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on 26 May.

Fortunately, the attempt by the LeT’s four-man terrorist group, which had come prepared for a protracted hostage situation, was frustrated by personnel from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, and failed in its mission. By noon the same day, Modi, still Prime Minister-designate, had spoken to India’s Ambassador in Afghanistan, Afghan President Karzai, and interested persons in Delhi, and issued a press statement.

The episode served to highlight, yet again, Nawaz Sharif’s duplicity and confirmed that he knew about the terrorist action. Nawaz Sharif is known to have close ties with the extremist jihadi tanzeems and he and his brother officially allocate funds from the Panjab provincial budget for Hafez Sayed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawaa. Circumstantial evidence also shows both Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Foreign Office’s complicity.

Both Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Foreign Office delayed confirming the former’s acceptance of Modi’s invitation until news of the failure of the terrorist attack on Herat had been confirmed. The failure of the attack was confirmed by the afternoon of 22 May and the following day Nawaz Sharif’s daughter tweeted that he would attend the ceremonies in Delhi. Some reports claimed that Nawaz Sharif’s son had met the Pakistan Army Chief earlier that day. The Pakistan Foreign Office officially confirmed Nawaz Sharif’s attendance on 24 May. Whatever doubts anyone may have harboured were addressed by Afghan President Karzai in an interview to the Indian national TV channel, Headlines Today, the day prior to Modi’s 50-minute meeting with Nawaz Sharif. Karzai squarely blamed the LeT for the terrorist attack and said this had been independently “confirmed by a Western Intelligence Agency.” By going public with the information on Indian national television, the Afghan President gave Modi a further reason for frank talks with Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif. Reports indicate that India’s security concerns were conveyed to Nawaz Sharif.

In the coming months Modi will engage with more powerful and developed nations such as China. Beijing has separately made it abundantly clear that burgeoning economic ties do not necessarily mean good bilateral relations which depend entirely on recognition of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. India will have to carefully balance its economic interests with the national security interests of China.

— Jayadeva Ranade

(The author is a Member of the National Security Advisory Board, President, CCAS & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS)