Modi’s Overreach Abroad Holds India Back on the World Stage
The ascent of Narendra Modi to India’s premiership last year was thought to have provided New Delhi with a leader who could propel its rise to great power status. But after nearly a year and a half in power, those expectations have proved to be overly optimistic. Modi has yet to graduate into a statesman and demonstrate an ability to calibrate the use of soft and hard power to realize India’s potential.
Both domestically and in foreign policy, Modi has too often favored confrontation and heavy-handed tactics over magnanimity and diplomacy. When Modi has succeeded, it has been when he has leveraged India’s economic might or played the role of overbearing neighbor. Despite recent setbacks, including his party’s thrashing in local elections in the eastern state of Bihar last week, an about-face by Modi is unlikely.
He remains wedded to applying at the federal level the approach toward governance that he applied in the state of Gujarat, which he governed for 13 years as chief minister. It is a strategy that mixes economic liberalism with muscular policy toward foes, both domestic and foreign, and is topped with clever branding. In some cases, it has worked. But increasingly, it has fallen flat.
Modi’s foreign policy successes and failures are most plain to see closest to home in South Asia. One of the first moves he announced after taking office was a “neighborhood first” policy aimed at promoting regional integration through economic liberalization and the resolution of outstanding territorial disputes. Its greatest success has been with Bangladesh. In June, India and Bangladesh concluded a landmark agreement to swap territories and permanently resolve their decades-long border dispute. New Delhi also offered a substantial aid package to Dhaka, including a $2 billion line of credit and energy deals between Bangladesh and two of India’s largest power companies. In Dhaka, though, the cards were heavily stacked in New Delhi’s favor, with the pro-India Awami League in power and the opposition heavily subdued, at least for now.
Buoyed in part by that success, Modi’s “neighborhood first” policy descended into a strategy aimed at integrating all of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) members, save for Pakistan—what some called “SAARC-minus-one.” But Modi’s attempts to play hardball with Pakistan, which includes stepped-up shelling of Pakistani towns along the so-called Working Boundary between Indian-held Kashmir and Pakistan, have been dismal.
Modi is still wedded to an impulse to bully that has backfired.
New Delhi would like the Pakistan-based perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks held accountable for their actions. But Islamabad has dragged its feet, motivated in part by a desire to contain the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group and prevent its ranks from joining the domestic insurgency centered in northwest Pakistan. Islamabad would also like to see Hindu extremists behind attacks on Pakistani visitors in India held responsible by Indian courts. And it would like to engage New Delhi in a comprehensive dialogue on all outstanding issues, especially the disputed region of Kashmir, where India favors the territorial status quo.
At a July meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Russia, Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, produced a joint statement that seemed to privilege terrorism as the priority issue in an upcoming meeting between the two countries’ national security advisers, taking Kashmir off the table. But India’s diplomatic victory at Ufa would be fleeting.
Pakistan’s political leadership, likely after pressure from the army, recalibrated its interpretation of the joint statement, making Kashmir the core issue. India refused to budge. Pakistan then canceled the talks, citing India’s preconditions.
Since the summer, New Delhi’s hard-line stance on Kashmir looks less tenable. Attacks on Pakistani dignitaries visiting India, as well as on Indian Muslims, remind the international community that Modi’s rise to power has inspired a troubling spike in right-wing Hindu violence. Large protests against Modi and in Indian-controlled Kashmir indicate local discontent with those dangerous trends. After Sharif’s visit to Washington in October, a joint American and Pakistani statement suggested the Obama administration’s backing of comprehensive dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi.
A little farther away in Afghanistan, India has lost strategic influence, where the Taliban are ascendant and China is playing a greater economic and diplomatic role. Following 9/11, New Delhi rode into Kabul on Washington’s coattails. But with China’s more prominent role in the Afghan endgame, India has receded to the background. Also diminishing is India’s role in Iran’s Chabahar port project, which was seen as a way for India to access the Afghan and Central Asian energy and mineral markets without having to use Pakistani territory.
As the Chabahar port development lags, China is pushing forward on projects that could transform the economic geography of Eurasia. Its ambitious One Belt, One Road transit and trade scheme aims to connect the Asian giant into a greater Eurasian network, from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. And within a few years, another grand plan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, should provide Beijing with direct access to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf shipping lanes.
India won’t be left by the wayside, though, thanks to some of Modi’s outreach that has paid off. India has its own plans to boost ties across South Asia and the Middle East and should become an increasingly important economic and perhaps even strategic player in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean regions, where it has a large, mercantile diaspora. In the Persian Gulf, Modi has pushed forward what he calls a Link West policy, aiming to build long-term ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), whose member states are keen to serve the growing Indian energy market and make investments in Indian industries, including information technology. And in the short term, Modi’s government has taken advantage of anger in the United Arab Emirates in particular toward Pakistan for not joining the Saudi-led war against the Houthis in Yemen.
India has also been able to capitalize on China’s recent economic slowdown to pivot into Africa, home to not only several emerging and frontier markets, but also a large bloc of countries that could back New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. India has been courting several African states that are reluctant to endorse its bid at the risk of upsetting China. Last month’s India-Africa summit in New Delhi, which was attended by 41 out of the 54 leaders of the African Union, was the latest effort, though the question of Security Council reform was left vaguely worded in the final communiqué.
Yet those successes aside, Modi is still wedded to an impulse to bully that has backfired. His government is accused of imposing an unofficial blockade on earthquake-hit Nepal, which has been wracked with protests over a contentious new constitution. But crippling oil shortages have sent Kathmandu into the arms of Beijing. New Delhi has also made alarmist statements about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that seem more like the empty threats of a paper tiger.
Modi’s ill-conceived use of punitive action is reflective of a chief minister accustomed to getting his way, not the leader of a rising power fulfilling its global potential. For India to truly rise, it will have to demonstrate the confidence to engage its neighbors, especially Pakistan, with foresight and pragmatism. Until then, India’s rise to great power status will remain aspirational, and it will live in the shadow of China, whose strategic coherence and strength it cannot match.