Saturday, December 31, 2016

Foreign Policy: The Third Act The Hindu

Modi’s Foreign Policy: The Third Act

By T.P.Sreenivasan

Any contemporary situation appears to follow a pattern described by Shakespeare years ago. The third act of  his plays is the “climax”, which is characterized by acute complications in the story, with no clear indication of future events. Having introduced the dramatis personae in the first act and revealed their concerns and intentions in the second, the Bard is at his creative best in the third act. The situation gets from good to bad and from bad to worse and the spectators breathlessly watch things go wrong in a bewildering manner. They have to wait for the fourth and the fifth acts to witness the denouement, whether it is wedding bells or funerals. 

Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy in the middle of his term is very much like the third act of a Shakespearean play. The entry was dramatic, full of surprises and even exciting. He strode like a colossus on the world stage with his freshness, energy, decisiveness and oratorical skills. India became visible, active and even assertive. His optimism was contagious and the whole country began anticipating the good times he promised. India would not be a mere spectator on the seashore of world affairs, but a participant, claiming its legitimate place on the tables, round, square, rectangular and even horse-shoe shaped. He took the bull by the horns, whether it was Pakistan, China or the United States. Lack of diplomatic experience appeared to be an asset rather than a liability as he let loose his legendary ‘yagaswam’ or the ritualistic horse to conquer the world. The first act was perfect.

But in the second act, when Mr. Modi began encountering complex issues, rivals and adversaries, things appeared complicated. Hesitations of history loomed large and quick fixes were not available. There were too many boxes crying out for standard solutions as he searched for out of the box outcomes. All the charms he tried on Pakistan and China went unrequited. He faced the same ghosts of the past, which had confronted Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Rao, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. All the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten the air around. High expectations resulted in deep disappointments. But there was joy in the progress made in certain countries, where he followed the path laid by his predecessors.

In today’s third act, Mr. Modi is sadder, but wiser. The confusion of the Shakespearean climax has gripped him. On the one hand, he is receiving dubious praise from the world that he is the one who set off the trend towards the right in 2014, leading to Brexit and Trump. On the other, the advent of Mr. Trump has brought the whole world to a standstill, jeopardizing even the new symphony he had painstakingly choreographed with Barack Obama. An evergreen friend, Vladimir Putin, appeared not just sulking, but also flirting with China and Pakistan to spite him. He had to be pacified with huge military contracts and an assurance that old friends are better than new ones. But, even at the recent Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar, the Russian envoy stated that the allegations against Pakistan by India and Afghanistan were totally baseless. It is clear that the fissure in India-Russia relations remains serious.

With Pakistan, neither the charm offensive nor the surgical strikes have made any difference. The situation is worse than what it was in 2014, when the ceasefire was in force and the terror attacks were not frequent. The policy of the previous Government that no comprehensive dialogue was possible without ending terrorism, often violated by India itself off and on, was completely disregarded by Modi when he invited Nawaz Sharif to India, proposed foreign secretary level talks, held NSA level talks and sent the External Affairs Minister to Islamabad to propose a comprehensive dialogue. The surge in terror attacks prompted the surgical strikes, which Pakistan refused to even acknowledge. Intermittent shooting on the border, expulsion of diplomats, suspected of spying and India’s open support to Baluchistan and boycott of the SAARC summit have brought the two countries to the brink of war. The lesson learnt was that seventy years of animosity and conflict cannot be wished away without major concessions on either side. Constitutional, legal and emotional issues rule out such concessions.

The whole castle in the air that Mr. Modi built in his first address from the ramparts of the red fort about the progress to be achieved by the combined efforts of SAARC countries lies shattered as the future of SAARC itself is uncertain. India invited BIMSTEC to interact with BRICS and not SAARC precisely to encourage a regional group without Pakistan in it. Another latent issue in SAARC was the possible admission of China. A majority of the members of the Association were in favour of China’s admission, though China is not part of the region. But the argument used by them was that since India and Pakistan were made full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a similar courtesy should be extended to China. If the Islamabad summit was held, India would have been alone in opposing China’s admission. Such a situation was averted by the cancellation of the summit. It should be noted that the absence of the other member countries in Islamabad did not necessarily mean support to the Indian position. It is the height of irony that regional cooperation in South Asia has come to such a pass as Mr. Modi reaches the midpoint of his Government.

The China scene looks less troublesome, but nothing has changed for the better in India-China relations in the last thirty months. No progress has been made on the border and none of the other issues between the two countries has been addressed. The China-Pakistan collusion continues and the long term measures being taken by China like One Belt One Road are designed to dominate the whole of Asia. Mr. Modi, on his part, has made no secret of his inclination towards the US, Japan and Australia and his concerns about the South China Sea. But happily, there have been very few incidents on the border and the economic activities continue, but mostly to suit the Chinese themselves. The balance of trade is heavily in their favour.

The situation on the western front should be a matter of satisfaction for Mr.Modi. The designation of India as a major defense partner has taken India-US relations to a higher level, which entitles India to have the same facilities for technology transfer as the allies of the US. Even after the election of Mr. Trump, the US Congress has approved the related legislation. Mr. Trump is unpredictable, but available indications are that, except on migration issues, India-US relations will remain strong in the future. Mr. Modi has his work cut out for him in befriending Mr. Trump in his fourth act.

The mixed picture on foreign policy that we see is an inevitable consequence of extraordinary global developments and the bold initiatives taken by Mr. Modi. The final judgment on his foreign policy shall have to await the correctives he will apply in the remaining part of his first term. The complications resulting from demonetization has affected Mr. Modi’s image, but his reputation as a man of decisive action has remained intact. The reports that Mr. Modi had secured the largest number of votes for the Time Man of the Year award were not surprising, even though Mr. Trump became the clear winner on account of his game changing victory and its global impact. Like a Shakespearean hero, Mr. Modi appears entangled in a web of intricate issues in the third act, but the remaining acts will determine his impact on the global scene.

(The writer is a former ambassador, who currently heads the Kerala International Centre.)

New Year Wishes and Thoughts

New Year Wishes and Thoughts 2017


Gone are the days when, at the dawn of the New Year, we had colorful cards with well scripted lines to decorate our homes and carefully crafted letters to share news and thoughts to strengthen the bonds of friendship and love. Now inboxes are flooded with mass produced pictures and videos, effortlessly forwarded over different platforms. I am sticking to the old method of wishing you the very best for 2017 with some random news and views. My hope is that all your dreams will come true in the New Year.

Humanity has come to terms with technological innovations disturbing our comfort zones to cause game changing disruptions. But 2016 showed that disruptive changes will be brought about as much by politics, philosophy and practices as by technology. We have realized that the genie of technology cannot be put back in the bottle to confine it to some spaces. Its all-encompassing reach has changed every narrative, political, social, cultural, literary and philosophical.

Establishments have crumbled everywhere as the storm of protests over failed expectations rage. People have begun to leap into the dark in the hope of securing better days. Democracy itself has lost its sheen, though it is through democratic means that regimes are changing. As globalization recedes, nativism and ultra-nationalism have begun to assert themselves. The world may eventually become a better place, but the pangs of a rebirth will take its toll. We should be prepared for a period of uncertainty and adjustment ahead before new establishments take shape. Trying to stem the tide of history will be futile.

On the family front, we have been fortunate enough to have glad tidings throughout from all, except for some mobility issues for Lekha, which have not dampened her spirit or altered her dedication to charity. Both Sree and Roopa went through the turmoil of professional changes, but both of them settled in well in their new surroundings, without disrupting the hectic routines of Durga and Krishna, which includes classical dance for Durga and soccer for Krishna. Sree’s move from the Metropolitan Museum to the City of New York as the Chief Digital Officer has become a case study in courage and use of social media to search for new horizons. Shree and Sharu have also been happy, particularly with the growth and development of Shivaay in Dubai. At three years and six months, Shivaay’s future profession is not yet  determined as his choice has moved so far from chef to musician to police chief to fire chief!

I completed my assignment with the Kerala Government, but I am still engaged in teaching and international studies, with even less spare time than before as my written and spoken words are still in demand at home and abroad. My policy is to answer the phone when it rings, not knowing when it will stop ringing.

Friends walk in and walk out of our lives, particularly when we change countries and continents frequently. But the few that remain and the new ones that get added are a blessing. The year 2016 also had its losses and gains. Amazing game changing friendships also came my way. The way of preserving relationships is to build bridges across different levels without expecting absolute reciprocity.

An untoward incident of January 29, 2016 when I learnt the value of turning the other cheek to those who do not know what they do has made me better, not bitter. I was taking on the sins of others as some of the controversial issues such as involving a business group at an exorbitant cost in the Global Education Meet and proposals for Academic Cities and Higher Education Zones were not mine. But I was disheartened by the resistance to change, disloyalty and lethargy in the Government, which inhibit the full realization of Kerala’s potential. Every negative action turns the clock back for us. Educational reform will come to Kerala, like computers, too little too late. Happily, many ideas of reform, rejected in Kerala, find place in the national agenda. My idea of a totally liberal education without constraints tallies with the thinking in Delhi.

The Kerala International Centre (KIC) is not just my second home, but a part of my home itself. It has created a small group of people, not only diplomats, journalists and Generals, but also others, who have a sustained interest in foreign policy. We meet, we argue and differ, but even consensus breaks out occasionally. A new KIC initiative to launch a Literary Forum was much appreciated. Several poets, some established and some making their debut, made an impact. We expect a healthy competition between strategic thinking and literature in the KIC in future.

The NSS Academy of Civil Services (NACS), which I now direct, has made a mark by sending several of its alumni to the Civil Services. Some Districts in Kerala are administered by our alumni and some missions abroad are manned by them.

Many of you have sent messages of goodwill and good wishes in various forms. This is by way of acknowledging and reciprocating all of them. Let us hope that our paths will cross in the New Year, at least in cyber space.

Lekha joins me in wishing you a happy New Year and beyond.

January 1, 2017