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With deft diplomacy and a carefully crafted foreign policy, Prime Minister Modi is powering the rise of India in the new world order

Sunjoy Hans

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the man in focus at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit held in the city of Samarkand from September 15 to September 16. With India taking over rotational presidency of SCO, an inter-governmental organisation comprising eight member states (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), PM Modi ensured that the world took note of each move he made and each word he spoke at the summit. While his snub to Vladimir Putin over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made international headlines, his “no handshake, no smiles” attitude towards Chinese President Xi Jinping was a fantastic piece of optics that conveyed a clear message that India does not approve of the Dragon’s expansionist designs. It was the first occasion the two leaders had come face to face since the Galwan valley clash between Indian and Chinese armies over two years ago and there was intense speculation about a possible meeting between them. But Modi can give someone a cold shoulder when he wants to.

He is a strong leader with a mind of his own. His plain speaking with Russian president Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit was proof that when circumstances demand, he can be blunt even with friends. For someone who had gone against the grain and refused to condemn Russia for launching the war against Ukraine when the conflict began, Modi was quite unequivocal when he told Putin in Samarkand that time had come for Moscow to “move onto a path of peace” as “democracy, diplomacy and dialogue” was a much better option.

“I know that today’s era is not of war,” Modi told the Russian president categorically and the latter responded by saying that he was aware of India’s concerns over the issue. “I know about your position on the conflict in Ukraine and I know about your concerns. We want all of this to end as soon as possible,” he is reported to have told Modi whose frank piece of advice to the Russian leader drew praise even from the US media.

This has been the hallmark of Modi’s foreign policy – frank and bold, flexible yet strong and always cherishing the ideal of ‘vasudhaiva kutumbkam’ (the world is a family) while keeping India’s flag flying high. It has often been described as path-breaking as it has succeeded in making India’s voice count on the world stage, something most other Prime Ministers before him were unable to do.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a leading international figure of his times and one of the founders of the non-aligned movement. His daughter Indira Gandhi’s biggest foreign policy triumph was the creation of Bangladesh. Manmohan Singh, who led a fragile coalition and sometimes had to encounter opposition within the party over foreign policy issues, has been credited with bringing about a transformation in India’s ties with the US and the Western world.

But Modi, a much more dynamic and energetic leader compared to the likes of Manmohan Singh, has surpassed most of his predecessors as far as the success of his foreign policy initiatives is concerned. Although a firm believer in charting his own course, he has never been reckless about it. In fact, he has allowed some of the old policy initiatives to continue, just tweaking them here and there to adjust to the changing dynamics of the current flux in international affairs. A quick leader, he realized quite early that foreign policy is never static as every country needs to adjust to the changing world around.

For example, India was already moving towards Quad, formally known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States during the tenure of Dr Manmohan Singh, but the need to accelerate the process was accentuated by the worsening Sino-Indian relations in the wake of clashes between the soldiers of the two countries in Ladakh. Donald Trump, then president of the United States, had also called out China with Beijing’s move across the Indo-Pacific rattling the world and making the US regard it as a future competitor. The international community’s view on China changed and Modi tuned his foreign policy accordingly.

The Quad, regarded as a formation to contain China, has been growing in stature with US President Joe Biden raising it to a summit-level engagement. Though not a military alliance, it has all the makings to be an important element of the Indo-Pacific defence structure. With the threat from the Dragon becoming real for India since the Galwan valley clashes in 2020, becoming a pro-active member of Quad was a natural move for the Modi government. A farsighted leader, Modi has been working hard to strengthen the alliance which, given the influence and resources of a superpower like the US, can counter the expansionist designs of China effectively. Yet it would be wrong to describe India as a camp follower of the US. Modi proved this during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when despite enormous pressure from the US and its NATO allies, India broke ranks with the Quad by refusing to condemn Russia as the aggressor. Modi instead did a delicate balancing act. India refused to vote against Russia at the UN and opted to remain neutral. While it provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine it also bought oil at a cheaper rate from Russia and, when criticised for doing so, pointed to Europe’s dependence on Russia’s oil and gas.

Under PM Modi, India has always taken an independent stand in international affairs while promoting the cause of global cooperation. It has refused to be dominated by any superior power and has never been apologetic about drawing the red lines when it comes to national interest. The fact is that while major powers unabashedly protect their national interests, developing nations are often browbeaten into following a powerful country for economic or strategic considerations. India under Modi has refused to do so. It values its freedom to differ on issues vital to its own interest. Even former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan had praised India’s foreign policy, describing it as ‘independent’ with enough scope to serve the national interest of the country. He said: “I applaud our neighbouring country India. They have always had an independent foreign policy. India is in an alliance with the United States in Quad and yet it’s buying Russian oil despite sanctions. This is because Indian foreign policy is in the interest of Indian people,” he had remarked when India refused to condemn the Russian action in Ukraine and continued to maintain business links with Moscow.

Modi at the same time has been building bridges with leaders across the world, sewing up alliances and firming up dialogues to spur the rise of India as a great power. Towards the beginning of this year, he had hosted a digital summit with the leaders of five Central Asian states, the first such engagement with the resource-rich and strategically located region. The event which showcased transformational diplomacy, an outstanding feature of India’s foreign policy under the Modi government, culminated in an ambitious joint statement. This diplomatic exercise of bringing the whole region on a common platform highlighted a vital feature of Prime Minister Modi’s diplomatic outreach.

With India celebrating 75 years of Independence and the Modi government completing eight years in office, these diplomatic initiatives have the overarching strategic objective of making India a great power and its people prosperous. For this the Prime Minister is ready to take risks and, as a result, Indian diplomacy has become more innovative, courageous, enabling India to make its place in the world order on its own terms.

The truth is that Modi has had an out-of-the-box approach to foreign policy right from day one. When he stormed to power in 2014, armed with the largest mandate in a quarter century, he chose to showcase his Neighbourhood First diplomacy by inviting the leaders of all neighbouring countries and Mauritius to his swearing-in ceremony. Ever since, he has visited all SAARC countries except Pakistan which has stubbornly persisted in using cross-border terror against India.

The systematic upgrade of India’s relations with the Gulf countries is also seen as one of the major foreign policy achievements of the Modi government. With deft diplomatic outreach to the energy-rich region, he has forged robust security and counter-terror cooperation with key players in the region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Similarly, his Act East policy is aimed at strengthening India’s ties with ASEAN countries. The India-ASEAN commemorative summit in 2018 was a milestone that brought the leaders of all ASEAN countries to India for the first time as chief guests at the Republic Day celebrations.

This multi-dimensional diplomatic outreach of the Modi government is part of a well-crafted strategy to fuse foreign policy with national development and resurgence. Besides elevating India’s global profile, this approach has led to foreign collaborations and financial support for flagship schemes of the government such as Make in India, Skill India, Smart Cities, Digital India, Namami Gange and Start-up India. Enhanced engagement with India’s external partners has brought visible benefits to people through foreign investment and technology tie-ups, leading to the setting up of industries and creating of new jobs.

Equally important is the fact that this recalibration of India’s foreign policy with the emerging world order has brought India into a position where its participation and cooperation is considered a must to address a slew of challenges ranging from combating terrorism and pandemics like COVID-19 to global warming. India is proactively setting the global agenda and playing a constructive role in key multilateral platforms such as the UN and the G20. The country’s rising global stature is clearly reflected in the high position that it occupies on various global platforms. It used one of these platforms to evolve a consensus on preventing the use of the Afghan territory for cross-border terrorism. While India seems to have buttressed its claim for a permanent seat in UN Security Council with its rising global stature, it continues to follow a zero-tolerance policy on global terrorism with continued efforts to forge counter-terror coalitions, which has won global applause. The Modi government has displayed unprecedented decisiveness and boldness in addressing Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism with surgical strikes on terrorist launch pads in the Pakistani territory, thus sending across a stern message that India will not tolerate any activity that compromises its territorial integrity.

India’s diplomatic outreach in the last few years has been marked by delicate diplomatic balancing, which some experts have described as issue-based multi-alignment. India has managed to strike a balance in its relations with the GCC countries and Israel on the one hand and between Iran and Israel on the other hand. It is part of Quad and has also sought to improve ties with other alliances, including the ASEAN. Modi’s diplomatic trapeze act underlines India’s growing confidence in dealing on equal terms with several power centres, some of them mutually antagonistic, and using this ever-increasing diplomatic network to protect and promote the interests of the country while bringing its own capacities to bear on the international system for global good. In his address at the World Economic Forum in Davos towards the beginning of this year, Prime Minister Modi said: “A strong democracy like India has gifted the whole world a beautiful gift, a bouquet of hope.” His words encapsulate the essence of India’s rise in the global order, marking the fruition of a carefully crafted foreign policy.

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