Even as analysts, Indian and foreign, were busy contemplating the meaning of the rise of Narendra Modi in India, the Prime Ministerial designate - now Prime Minister - surprisingly announced that he had invited the heads of States of all SAARC countries for his 26 May swearing-in ceremony being held in Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Modi’s first diplomatic initiative, what diplomatic theory would call “diplomatic signalling,” should be seen at three levels of analysis. At first, it signifies an attempt to reduce the political and diplomatic apprehensions about Modi himself. Modi had rattled many in the region and world capitals by his aggressive, nationalistic stance on a range of domestic and international issues during his election campaign. This diplomatic initiative seeks to send a message that Modi means business; that he would be a responsible player in the international arena.
At the second level, Modi is demonstrating to the region, India’s neighbourhood, that it holds the utmost importance, a place of primacy, in India’s foreign policy calculus. It has been largely understood now that India’s rise in the world as a great power cannot happen unless it gets two related policies right. First, India’s success globally is predicated on its continued economic success, so it needs to get the growth rates going again. For this, India’s neighbours, in Modi’s view, could and should be the ‘natural’ economic partners. India now trades more with other countries in Asia than its immediate South Asian neighbours, and this needs to be actively rectified. Second, a State not at peace with its neighbours is not taken seriously in its claims to be a great power, and a natural claimant for the UN Security Council permanent seat whenever it happens, as desired by India.
At the third level, Modi and his foreign policy ideologues see this diplomatic engagement of South Asia as a counter to China’s rapid rise, forceful assertiveness and the real domination of Asia in all international spheres, not just in South Asia, but also in East Asia, where India has true economic, political and diplomatic interests. India, like many States in Asia, including Japan and the US, had hoped that increasing economic integration with China would make it a “responsible stakeholder” in the US-led international system, beneficial to most Asian States, including India. But over the last few years, China has become aggressive not only with its neighbours, like Japan and Vietnam, but also with India as witnessed in the frequent border clashes initiated by China at some levels. It is exactly due to this Chinese behaviour that many States in the region have responded favourably to the US pivot to Asia, and many rightly hope that India would also be a willing partner in the US-led attempts to control and engage, but maybe not contain at this moment, China. Also, significantly, India’s security would face grave challenges after the ongoing withdrawal of the US-led international security forces from Afghanistan. An early, stable engagement with the South Asian neighbours would provide a shield against the negative implications, especially for the Modi-led government, who would be seen as a strict enforcer of Indian security interests in the region.
India’s strategic elite, the largely Delhi-based foreign policy analysts and retired diplomats, seem, however, divided on this Modi initiative. Some have called it too early and naive, in the sense that there would be no foreign minister or national security advisor to guide the PM into engaging this very significant set of leaders. Many have, however, welcomed this step, calling it a diplomatic coup. They contend that it would significantly shape the Indian trajectory in its rise as a great power in Asia and beyond.
While Modi’s diplomatic initiative could be truly very innovative and signal the importance of the new Indian government to the leaders of South Asia, it needs to be managed sensitively, and extreme caution must be exercised in the way it is seen here and in many South Asian capitals. To begin with, some hardliners in the Modi party are keen to use this opportunity as a ‘test’ to see which leaders would attend the swearing-in ceremony. This must be avoided, especially with Pakistan, in which regard some voices have emerged stating that Modi has reached out to Pakistan, but if the PM decides not to come, it would show his reluctance and/or lack of political power to engage India and especially Modi. One Indian analyst went ahead and saw Modi with a China-like Middle Kingdom complex which is leading him to treat India’s neighbours as vassal States that need to pay tribute to the central power. This was and could be reflective of hardline views in some South Asian capitals as well, which need to be dispelled by the incoming government.
Diplomacy, the art and the science, should be carefully articulated and implemented. It has to be patient, and process and purpose-driven. Narendra Modi should carefully use his initiative to make the countries of South Asia his equal, sovereign partners in his larger national and international schema.