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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2675

“Modi Wave”: Some Foreign Policy Dimensions

By Bandu de Silva

Commentaries which have appeared in the Sri Lankan media so far on the future policies that India under Modi government might follow have to be considered more speculative than analytic. There is a good reason for this. One does not have analytically material placed under a prism to judge analytically which way the future might follow under the Modi administration. Analysts have to go by the past performance.

Here one has on the one hand, evidence of what BJP basically stood for with its Rashtriya Swayam Sewaka Sangh and other Hindutva associated past, despite, also the presence of powerful moderating influences, and on the other hand, the past performance by the BJP government which saw a deviation from the past policies India had followed under the traditional rule of the Congress government.

While this situation may seem to provide a reasonable background to base an analytical framework in assessing the future direction of the Modi government, this need not be so. The circumstances which brought Modi into limelight and his final overwhelming success at the recently concluded elections are far more complex than what appears on the surface. In a country so divided by geography, racial/tribal, language and religious affiliations and where other divisive electoral forces are at work, some even tending to show, as was the two cases of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu demonstrated at the recent elections by selecting completely different issues in electing members to the Lok Sabha, the “Modi wave” this time has to be considered as something extraordinary. Very few indeed expected a clear margin of victory for the BJP alone to form a government of its own without the support of the coalition NDA and some thought the NDA might have to look for support from the two regional/state parties dominating West Bengal and AIDDMK led Tamil Nadu. If Modi had to depend on their support to form a fragile coalition, it could have gone to constrain the independence of the decision making process in New Delhi, which was a situation that the Manmohan Singh government was increasingly seen subjected to during its rule.

It is a relief to India’s neighbors to find that the Modi government does not have to carry any of this type of mill-stones round its neck in setting about in defining policy towards India’s neighbors. This is one positive factor emerging from the elections. The Indian electorate, considered in its totality, has voted against the growing tendency of regional/state hegemonies asserting greater influence in decision making at the Centre. This does not mean to say that Modi as pre-Prime ministerial personality was totally averse to a regional/state role in decision making at the Centre. This is an aspect I discussed in my previous articles as “St Gillan principle” working in India published in The island some years back.

Modi was seen speaking at times in favour of a role for the peripheral units but his position was different from that of West Bengal or Tamil Nadu in that it did not go to clash with interests of the neighboring countries. As the long –standing Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi was more concerned about the economic development of his state and invited foreign investments from neighbouring countries including China. Election -period and post-election discussions point to a contrary direction. That is better defining the role of the regions/states in policy making. Some critical analysts in India, perhaps, influenced by BJP’s think tanks seem to emphasie the Constitutional position of the Centre as the decision –making power while it tries to reach a compromise with earlier pre-election Modi attitudes by suggesting only a role of consultation to the regions/states in the matter of policy making by the Centre. That looks how the Centre vs. regions/states issue in policy making is going to be treated in the future. One can see it already happening over the Modi government’s decision to invite leaders of SAARC countries for the inauguration ceremony of the new Prime Minister, which is an innovation as far as Indian political culture, goes. The way NDA coalition partner Vaiko’s serious objections to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom he calls “the greatest sinner” being invited to the ceremony and that of others in Tamil Nadu, though not so vociferously expressed, is already a pointer that the Modi government is confident enough by itself over which course is good for the country, notwithstanding the objections of its detractors.

New direction in foreign policy?

Besides, for the foreign policy observer the decision to invite the SAARC leaders to the inauguration ceremony breaking from tradition is an important early signal that the Modi government is keen to establish a new direction in the country’s foreign policy. There have been a variety of comments on this matter, some even seeing the move as one sending a terse message to India’s South Asian neighbours that India would now deal with them more sternly than before. That seems to be an exaggeration though the underlying principle in this seemingly symbolic innovative gesture remains the recognition of the need to develop close rapport with SAARC neighbours. How the BJP views the situation with regard to India’s standing in SAARC can be seen from even the remarks made by Dr.Subramanian Swamy defending the invitation to President Rajapaksa that all SAARC neigbours barring Bhutan had been hostile to India. (Asian Tribune). Though the idea of being hostile to India may need qualification, that remark by this respected BJP stalwart, who was once Minister of Justice, signals a critical point of view held in Indian circles how unfavourably India’s relations with SAARC had progressed under the previous government and therefore the need for an urgent course direction. As the bigger and dominant partner, India had much to gain from SAARC by way of a lead role, not amounting to a hegemonic one, had she used the opportunity diplomatically and to the better advancement of the region as whole. It in such a context that I see the significance of the invitation to SAARC leaders at Modi inauguration, not just a symbolic gesture, but one where the new BJP leadership under Modi could seize the opportunity for a new beginning. That would serve India’s interests best which is the primary principle which emerges out of the new Modi Wave. That would then serve a dual purpose. That is while serving India’s primary interests; it will allow India the new leadership role in the region. That would be then extending the self-interest principle to the arena of foreign policy itself.

Many of the comments on Modi election have tended to over – emphasize the fact Modi’s alleged role in Gujart riots of 2002 to support a thesis that new Modi government may not be minority-friendly. Ammen Izzadeen writing in Daily Mirror (Saturday 24 May 2014, observed that “India’s Muslims, who voted largely for parties other than the BJP, are beset with uncertainty over the Modi government’s policies towards minorities. … Adding to their fears is the fact that none of the 330 plus NDA parliamentarians is a Muslim”. The situation is far more complex than that. With India harbouring a Muslim population which is far greater than that of any Muslim country other than Indonesia, the Muslim minority issue in India cannot be viewed as an ordinary minority issue. It is an issue on which India’s claim to be a multi-cultural state dedicated to secular principles which is a basic assertion in India’s external image and claim to a cultural colossus depends. Modi government could be seen doing its utmost to protect this image notwithstanding the early affiliations of the BJP and of Modi himself with organizations such as Rastriya Swayam Sevak Sangh and other extreme Hindu groups.

Other Foreign Policy issues

As in the case of other Lok Sabah elections, foreign policy was not a key issue at all in the recent elections, though it may be different in the case of state elections like that of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. But Modi did refer to the Congress administration’s handling of foreign policy as ineffective even suggesting it was “non-assertive”. In his speech in Arunachal Pradesh during the electoral round, Modi was seen making a strong assertive statement when he said that China should not be expansionist and that India would be “well defended”. This attracted a moderately word retort from Beijing, again by the same spokesperson in the Foreign Office, saying that China had no aggressive intent on her neighbors. Compared to the responses that came out of China in the days of Mao-Dze –dong that Chinese response was very mild, indeed.

In my view, this statement which reflected more the influence of Modi advisors’ handiwork than how far Modi himself would have wanted to go, has made China to slip Modi from its comments during the post- election period. What has come out of Beijing so far is a low key statement by the spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, but emphasing China’s willingness to develop cooperation in strategic matters. That too was not a voluntary expression but a reply to questions put to him.

The net result is that Modi did not receive a warm early response from China to his election which contrasts itself with the warm receptions he received in Beijing earlier during his four visits as Chief Minister. On his last visit he was received by the highest in the hierarchy in the Chinese Communist Party which even accorded him a reception in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, an honour which is retained for state visitors. The issue of Arunachel Pradesh which China calls “Southern Tibet” is a very sensitive matter for the Chinese. I believe the present display of disinterest on the part of China in the “Modi wave” would be short –lived and the two sides would not allow the advancements made in cooperative sphere since the 1960s to wither away. Looking at Modi’s past interest in Chinese investment and participation in infrastructure building, it is doubtful if he would allow the expectations to be drowned by raising controversial issues though he may have expressed certain sentiments during the heat of the electoral campaign. I hope the two governments would overcome the minor [but sensitive] storm soon and a strong China policy of cooperation would emerge form part of India’s foreign policy under the new dispensation. Modi government being economic oriented, can be expected to build upon the cooperation which the previous government established by signing seven agreements with China during Premier Manmohan Singh’s visit to Beijing in 2013.

US –India relations

The emphasis in Barack Obama’s message to Prime Minister -elect Modi to the strategic cooperation between the two countries and of his wish that progress would be made on those lines cannot be missed. US could be seen bending over her back to maintain this security related partnership. It was not long ago that US announced India as a friendly country with whom she was engaging in developing the US’s Littoral Combatant Ships (LCS) project under her new” Indian Ocean bases and Strategic Rebalancing Plan toward Asia and Pacific (SRPAP). (Please see my article published in Ceylon Today of 8 May 2014and Asian Tribune of 9th May 2014) While this US plan basically targets China though not openly admitting so, one has to wait and see how the Modi administration would respond to it. It depends much on how India’s relations with China would progress under the new dispensation.

Relations with Sri Lanka

I would not join the speculative bandwagon to offer any ideas as to how the relationship between the two governments is likely to progress though there is much expectation both in positive and negative terms. I read an interesting article by my former diplomatic colleague, Izeth Hussein, in The Island today (24 May 2014). He projects Modi as a “dangerous man” to judge from his record and issues a warning to the Sri Lankan government not to expect the same type of response from him as from the Oxford educated Manmohan Singh to what he sums up as Sri Lanka’s vacillating responses to India. He observes that the fundamentals of Indian policy on Sri Lanka remain unchanged. These fundamentals, according to him are that Sri Lanka by itself can never be a serious threat to India but it could be if it gets together with some powerful foreign country against India, and except in that eventuality nothing would preclude total amity and co-operation without India wanting to dominate Sri Lanka or exercise undue influence in any way.

He traces how after a period of amicable relationship the picture changed when President JRJayewardene began courting the US and the West. Applying the same paradigm, one can see how Sri Lanka’s growing relationship with China has been blown up by interested parties, notably, the US, to create a similar or rather a greater scenario of thereat perception to India arising from the Sino-Sri Lanka link. It depends on how India perceives the situation. After all, there was not much of substance in the US –Sri Lanka link under the Jayewardene administration for India to take counter measures like promoting training, arming and financing of Sri Lankan Tamil terrorist groups. As I pointed out in earlier article, the China bogey comes up for discussion among Indian law makers from time to time. Even the former External affairs Minister Kurshid, was dragged into making a remark in Lok Sabha to the effect that India was keeping close watch on China’s infrastructure- building activities in the neighborhood.

India’s concerns over her security are understandable. At times these get blown up to unwarranted proportions. When Sri Lanka purchased a Chinese boat for TAFFAI work in early 1960s after calling for international tenders, the subject became important to India to raise [low key] inquiries. I was the contact person used by the Indian High Commission. There was nothing sinister either in the purchase or even in the inquiry. My [daily] contact in the Indian High Commission, Second Secretary Raj Kumar was a very genial personality. It was transparent affair. Similarly, when Sri Lanka signed a Maritime Agreement with China around that time, the Most-Favored -Nation Clause included in it caused a sensation. That it was a clause universally applied in international maritime agreements was ignored. Again when facilities at Iranwilla under the VOA agreement with US were being negotiated under the Jayewardene government, India intervened and sought modifications on grounds of India’s security interests. Again, when US scientific foundations donated a Satellite tracking station for the Moratuwa University’s Arthur Clarke Centre, India was disturbed. Indian high Commission’s inquiries from the Sri Lankan Foreign Office ended with me as the one who was in touch with the Arthur Clarke project. I had to point out that this was no secret affair and the Indian High Commissioner was invited to the opening ceremony and was represented. That should indicate how information is built up. It is not that a country should be subservient but with a sensitive neighbor like India Sri Lanka could be seen transparent about her relationship with China so that misconceptions should not grow on that account.

One small point in Hussein’s article where he refers to Sri Lanka’s Rubber-rice Agreement to which India had no objection, his point that it had no military dimension might lead to an implication that it is military dimension that India objects to. The point needs some elaboration. India at the time of the first Rice –Rubber Pact (1952-57) was closely associated with China. It was the time of the “Indi-Chini Bhai-Bhai” days when the Indian Ambassador R.K. Nehru’s wife went round toasting to that “Bhai-Bhai” with every person she met at the diplomatic receptions so much so it became a topic of discussion at the time.

A new opening has presented itself to both countries to take a close look at bi-lateral relations untrammeled by former dilatory attitudes of India resulting from responding to Tamil Nadu aspirations and Sri Lankan government’s equal failure to strengthen trust –building. If the new opportunity is used diplomatically on both sides, it augurs well for both sides. It is too early for me to comment on prospects of both countries joining in reviving Nam and the IOPZ projects which saw the highest level cooperation between the two countries.

- Asian Tribune -

“Modi Wave”: Some Foreign Policy Dimensions
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