India's pivot to South Asia does not seem to be working

He (Modi) remains a general with no foot soldiers.... He is unable to see foreign policy beyond the photo-op.

By Mani Shankar Aiyar (Diplomacy)

Published: Sun 27 May 2018, 9:05 PM

On May 26, 2014, while the media applauded and Indian, South Asian and world opinion welcomed Narendra Modi's innovative move to invite heads of state/government from all South Asian governments to the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan to witness his coronation - sorry, his taking the oath as the next prime minister of India - I was perhaps alone in being frankly appalled.
Modi began his odyssey of serial hugging by first grabbing Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif while simultaneously assuring him that the stalled India-Pakistan dialogue would receive a mighty impetus in the new golden age of South Asian cooperation that was dawning. Nawaz Sharif welcomed the initiative without putting the standard clichés about Kashmir into the joint statement. And although he drew some flak at home for this lapse, the overall sentiment in Pakistan was that Modi was the best thing that had happened to them since at least Morarji Desai.
However, at the Kathmandu SAARC summit in November 2014, as Barkha Datt discovered, Modi had a secret tryst with Sharif in a hotel room arranged by Sharif's business partner, Sajjan Jindal.
The personalisation of foreign policy had begun, ending the well-established institutionalised practice of trained diplomatic experts carefully preparing the ground before the last leg of the trek to the summit begins. This personalisation has proved the bane of four years of foreign policy under Modi.
Instead of soundly running foreign policy through institutionalised mechanisms, it is the misuse of foreign affairs to build a personality cult that has been at the root of the Modi Diplomatic Disaster in South Asia. A sudden summit is fine to start a process. But what should follow is a carefully crafted process of discreet preparation that settles most issues, leaving one or two points open for the two heads of state/government to resolve.
But as Modi wants all the credit for himself, he remains a general with no foot soldiers, and so comes a cropper each and every time he makes a dramatic gesture in the name of diplomatic innovation. He is unable to see foreign policy beyond the photo-op.
The next target for Modi's ministrations was Nepal. He landed in Kathmandu a few weeks after the swearing-in ceremony. What a reception he was accorded! Modi and his team, continuing his election campaign, repeatedly underlined that he had arrived in Nepal within weeks whereas his predecessor had not visited Nepal even once during his decade-long tenure.
Modi had every intention of meddling in Nepal's internal affairs, as was shortly to be revealed. At first, the Nepalese government played along, but as further demands began pouring in the Nepalese awoke to the horror of being used as cats-paws in an Indian state election. Modi has had to bow to the inevitable. He visited Nepal to "reset" India-Nepal relations, relations that needed resetting only because he had so thoroughly wrecked them in the first place. The mood in Nepal was succinctly summed up in a placard that said, "Welcome, Modi, but we haven't forgotten the blockade".
With Bangladesh, the summum bonum of the relationship is Modi doing no more than signing an agreement earlier negotiated by previous governments, on the demarcation of the land boundary, including the hotly contested Teen Bigha enclaves. The far more important Teesta river issues continue to fester. But the worst development is the amendment to the Citizenship Act the Modi government is attempting to push through to fulfill Modi's wholly communal promise to allow non-Muslim Bangladesh-origin immigrants to secure entitlement to Indian citizenship while placing severe discriminatory restrictions on Bangladeshi Muslims.
Doklam has signalled the inflexion point in India's relations with Bhutan, the first South Asian country Modi visited with much hype and fanfare. While Modi's musclemen skewed up the tension, professional diplomats were mercifully left to their devices to defuse the situation. Wuhan represented Modi's acceptance of the inevitable. The Chinese are now at Doklam to stay. In the meanwhile, we have given Bhutan such a fright that India-Bhutan relations have, perhaps forever, lost the even tenor.
Despite having tried to acquire a high profile in Sri Lankan affairs with a view to contributing to a resolution of the island's deep ethnic divide between Tamils and Sinhalas that spills over to Tamil Nadu, India remains a sidelined player. This, of course, is largely owing to the Modi government's total inability to win the confidence of any section of the Sri Lankan polity.
The Chinese, meanwhile, have moved into Hambantota and not all the 'Quads' in the world are going to displace them. The Indian Ocean is no longer our domestic lake. Perhaps it never was.
And that assessment is reinforced by the happenings in the Maldives. We have a government there that dislikes India quite as much as it loves the Chinese. Modi stands hapless before this "factuity". Where once India's Rajiv Gandhi was begged to come to the armed rescue of a besieged Maldivian government, India under Modi counts for zilch at the very cross-roads of the Indian Ocean. China has arrived and the same Modi's India that aspires to "Great Power" status in the world cannot make even a blade of grass move in its own backyard.
SAARC, and hence South Asian cooperation, have suffered continuously under Modi's watch. He won a Pyrrhic victory by sabotaging the Islamabad summit but everyone else wants the summit to be held - and that too in Islamabad - so the point Modi was trying to make remains obscure.
The forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan witnessed on 26 May 2014 a grand spectacle. The spectacle has proved empty of content. The only hope of South Asian solidarity lies in a change of government a year from now. Till then, one can only pray that things will not go from bad to even worse.
Mani Shankar Aiyar is a former Indian diplomat turned politician

More news from OPINION
Identity overlap while being on the move


Identity overlap while being on the move

For a slice of the global population that is geographically mobile, at times even settling down in a ‘foreign’ land, the idea of a motherland is watered down. as plurality kicks in, your ‘origins’ get blurred

Opinion1 week ago