Modi’s Foreign Policy Moments
In June 2017, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi happened to be the first foreign head of the government whom the then US President Donald Trump hosted in the White House.
On March 12, 2021, Modi was also the one among two other Prime Ministers whom the new US President Joe Biden interacted with in what was the latter’s first ever multilateral summit with international leaders after assuming office on January 20, 2021.
President Biden, Prime Minister Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian premier Scott Morrison held a virtual summit, which, incidentally, was the first ever summit of the four heads of the government as members of the informal group called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as “Quad”.
In this column, I am not going to discuss about the efficacy, or lack of it, of the Quad, which, consisting of “diamonds of democracies” in the Indo-Pacific , in its historic summit decided that India would make US vaccines that will be available for the global good with Japanese funds and Australian logistics.
Rather, my thrust will be on concrete achievements in the realm of Indian foreign policy for which Modi will be remembered by the posterity – title of a talk that I delivered at one “Institute of Management and Mass Communications” last fortnight.
I told my audience that I would be little unconventional and not stress on any specific bilateral relationship, though I took questions on them during the interactive phase of the talk. Accordingly, I made five points for which Modi should be legitimately proud of.
First, there has been an appreciable rise in the power of Indian passport during the Modi-regime. India’s passport power has improved by 24 ranks in the last five years because of the liberalisation of its visa policy and several other measures taken.
According to the globally accepted Arton Capital Passport Index (ACPI), an online tool which collects and displays passport ranks, India has jumped to the 53rd spot on the list from 77 in 2015.
The ACPI methodology considers passports of 193 United Nations member countries and six territories. To determine the individual rank of each passport, a Visa Free Score (VFS) is prepared, which is the sum of Visa Free (VF) and Visa on Arrival (VoA) facility accorded to the passport holder of a country.
As per the latest data, Indian passport holders can have visa free entry in 16 countries, can procure visa on arrival in 32 countries and obtain e-visas from 30 countries.
India, it is to be noted, has liberalised its visa policy with the objective of promoting investments and tourism into India from other countries. The e-visa scheme has been liberalised to allow business visits and medical treatment in India. The number of entries and validity of e-visas has been increased and the scheme has been expanded to include 170 countries and territories till date.
These initiatives are expected to encourage other countries to reciprocate and facilitate travel of Indian passport holders to their countries. As more countries permit Indian passport holders to visit Visa Free or grant them Visa on Arrival facility, the rank of the Indian passport on the Global Passport Index is expected to improve further.
Secondly, ever since he assumed the office as the Prime Minister in 2014, Modi’s proactive outreach with the Indian Diaspora, estimated by a recent study of the United Nations to be the world’s largest at 18 million, has reached great heights, if his massive rallies in places raging from Madison Square to Sydney, Suva to Dubai, and London to Houston were any indication.
For Modi, the colour of the passports does not matter as long as a person has blood links with India. He brought the Diaspora closer to India by merging Person of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cards and making this card holder equal with Indian citizens in every respect, save the right to vote and contest elections.
It may be noted that despite eminent persons from the Indian Diaspora such as Adi Patel, Chhedi Jagan and organisations like the Gadar movement, Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army) and Komagata Maru contributing a lot to India’s freedom struggle even Mahatma Gandhi was a non-resident Indian practicing law in South Africa), India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was of the view that the Diaspora must not expect anything from India, that they should be good citizens of the countries of their adaption and that they must fully identify themselves with these countries. In fact, Nehru had abolished the Ministry for Overseas Indian Affairs in 1947.
It was only when the BJP came to power in Delhi under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998 that India’s Diaspora outlook changed. The Vajpayee government talked of the ‘Great Indian Family’, launched the PIO card scheme, organised the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on 9th January, gave out Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards and so on. Modi further promoted this policy, which under him, may be summed up in terms of 3 C’s—‘connect’ with India, ‘celebrate’ their cultural heritage and ‘contribute’ to the development of the homeland.
Modi’s active cultivation of the Indian Diaspora has provided India a huge advantage in taking India’s relationship with major countries, particularly the United States, to a higher level. Indian-Americans happen to be one of the most high-profile ethnic groups in America. Among college-educated Indian immigrants, more than half have an advanced degree. In fact, the percentage of the number of Indian-Americans who have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degrees is five times the national average in America.
What all this means is that these Indian-Americans, having best professional jobs in business, management, medicine and science (they get 73 per cent of best jobs, compared to the overall foreign- and native-born populations, at 31 per cent and 38 per cent, respectively), form a huge constituency for India which no American government or business can ignore. And since this constituency happens to be in love with Modi, then no American President can overlook India. That explains whether it is Clinton or Bush or Obama or Trump or Biden, then India’s relationship with the world’s most powerful country in every sense of the term (China, all hypes notwithstanding, will at best be a poor second for foreseeable future) is destined to progress, not otherwise.
Thirdly, Modi is arguably the first Prime Minister of India who has been proactive (much against India’s not so palatable record of always being a country that ‘reacts” to international developments) in creating global outfits of organisations. Let us face it, most of the international institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank or the International Monetary Fund that we see are the creations of the so-called victorious leaders of the World War II.
Viewed thus, Modi will be remembered for taking initiative to launch the International Solar Alliance (ISA) along with the then French president Francois Hollande in November 2015 at the 21st session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP-21) in Paris. The alliance was formed with the aim to promote solar energy in 121 member countries and to mobilise over $1 trillion of investment for the deployment of solar energy at affordable costs.
Eighty-nine countries have signed the ISA’s Framework Agreement and of these 72 have deposited their instruments of ratification. The founding conference of the alliance was co-hosted by Modi and present French President Emmanuel Macron on 11 March 2018 in New Delhi. Apart from the French President, 21 heads of states, 6 vice presidents and deputy prime ministers and 19 ministers as heads of delegations attended the conference.
It is a matter of great pride for India that the first inter-government organisation like ISA is headquartered in India, in Gurugram and its first director-general happens to be an Indian, Upendra Tripathy, a dear friend of mine. There are also talks on to establish a World Solar Bank, which will be headquartered in India. Also, India is expected to become a lead member by picking up 30 per cent stake in the proposed bank through a $600 million equity commitment.
Modi envisaged the ISA to be a coalition of solar-resource-rich countries (which lie either completely or partly between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn) to address their special energy needs. The ISA will provide a dedicated platform for cooperation among solar-resource-rich countries, through which the global community, including governments, bilateral and multilateral organizations, corporates, industry, and other stakeholders, can contribute to help achieve the common goal of increasing the use and quality of solar energy in meeting energy needs of prospective ISA member countries in a safe, convenient, affordable, equitable and sustainable manner.
Fourthly, if Modi’s closeness with France resulted in the ISA, then his friendship with former US President Trump and former Japanese premier S Abe have played an immense role in making the construct of “Indo-Pacific” a geopolitical reality, of which Quad is an important feature. In fact, his contribution in this regard will be his lasting legacy.
Indo-Pacific as a political and economic entity is gaining global recognition. Till two years ago, many leading countries – particularly the European powers, ASEAN countries and Russia – were hesitant to even use the term “Indo-Pacific”; instead they were more comfortable in using what was a geographic term of “Asia-Pacific”. But things are changing, with hitherto reluctant powers like Russia, Germany, France and Britain (UK) now openly talking of the importance of Indo-Pacific, by transforming their geographical imaginations due to economic, geo-political and diplomatic trends of recent years.
The Indo-Pacific region (IPR) is a geostrategic construct rather than an established geographical notion. It was conceived by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a 2007 speech in Indian Parliament, where he described the idea as “a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity.” This concept of deep inter-linkage between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean has gained much currency since then, thanks to its promotion by Abe, Modi and Morrison in general and Trump in particular.
In 2013, Australia released its Defense White Paper identifying the Indo-Pacific as the new theatre. In 2015, India and Japan issued the first joint statement on the Indo-Pacific and the world. In 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented Tokyo’s Indo-Pacific vision. In 2017, Japan launched its report on free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. In 2017, The United States identified the Indo-Pacific as the new theatre in its national security strategy, with the US Department of Defense subsequently characterizing the Indo-Pacific it as “the single most consequential region for America’s future.” In May 2018, the United States renamed the U.S. Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. In June 2018, Modi presented India’s Indo-Pacific vision at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Now the Indo-Pacific Region (IPR) is seen to be encompassing countries located on the American or African/Middle Eastern rims of the Pacific and Indian Oceans as “littoral states” on the one hand and “inner” nations, stretching from the Indian sub-continent, up through Southeast Asia to China and the northeast Asian countries of Japan and the Koreas, on the other. Thus, it encompasses continental, peninsular, and archipelagic landforms.
IPR’s waterways, comprising most of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with the inner seas and vast bays, form the integrated pathways vital to the global economy, linking Europe and the western hemisphere with the world’s workshops. The Indo-Pacific now accounts for close to half of global economic output and contains more than half the world’s population. It is a region vital to the peace and prosperity of the entire globe.
There is now an emerging consensus, save that of China, on the importance and sanctity of maritime connectivity, open sea lanes free from any single country’s domination, rules-based order sanctified by international laws, and deepening peaceful political and economic engagements among the countries, including China, of the Indo-Pacific.
That explains why on December 21, 2020 Russian Ambassador to India NikolayKudashev said that Moscow, so far at the forefront along with Beijing in resisting to the idea of Indo-Pacific, “understands and supports India’s inclusive vision of the Indo-Pacific based on international law”. Until recently, Russia repeatedly argued against the use of Indo-pacific which it termed as an American idea to contain China and draw not only allies Japan and Australia but also India to Washington’s goal.
In 2018, France unveiled its own Indo-Pacific strategy, highlighting its acknowledgment of the region the world’s economic powerhouse. On September2, 2020, Germany, which was very sceptical otherwise about the term Indo-Pacific, became the second European country after France to adopt policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific region “Germany—Europe—Asia: shaping the 21st century together,” in which the country for the first time officially endorsed the concept of the “Indo-Pacific.”
The UK has not officially pronounced its strategy regarding IPR as yet , but during the recent India- visit of British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab( December 14-17), London manifested its “Indo-Pacific tilt”, particularly in strengthening defence ties in the maritime security domain. Boris Johnson’s government is reportedly in agreement with the interim findings of the UK’s Policy Exchange think tank’s s Indo-Pacific Commission that India and the wider Indo-Pacific region must form the essence of a manifesto of what a Global Britain looks like in the 2020s and beyond in the post-Brexit era.
Even the 10- member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has adopted the ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’ after more than a year of negotiations in June 2019, after President Trump proposed the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy during his Asia tour in 2017. The main initiative for drafting the ASEAN vision of the Indo-Pacific was taken by Indonesia.
The above developments make it clear that the IPR construct is here to stay, China’s stiff resistance notwithstanding. So much so that countries are now talking of “Quad –Plus”, again another initiative by the Trump Presidency. In May 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hosted a foreign ministers’ meeting of the IPR on the novel disease of Covid-19 and the post-pandemic state of the international order, which included the representatives of India, Japan, and Australia, the Republic of Korea, Brazil and Israel. Later, New Zealand and Vietnam also endorsed the idea of the common endeavour across the Indo-Pacific region to counter the spread of the virus, develop vaccines, address the challenges of stranded citizens, and mitigate the impact on the global economy and uphold the “fundamental Indo-Pacific principles of openness, transparency, respect for sovereignty and adherence to international law”.
I have highlighted the above developments in details to underscore a point, which the formidable pro-China lobbies may not appreciate, that with the Indo-Pacific construct gaining wide currency, there is a global realisation that in determining the contours of the 21st century, India will play a primary role. And in making the world realise the importance of India, Modi’s role will be remembered by future generations.
Fifthly, and it my last point, though Modi’s innumerable critics brand him as communal and anti-Muslim, the Prime Minister has been able to emerge as the most popular Indian leader ever in a vast and essentially Muslim-region. And that region happens to be West Asia, known otherwise as Middle-East. Except, Kuwait, he has travelled almost all the important countries in the region, including Iran and Israel. Since first becoming Prime Minister 2014, Modi has visited the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries 8 (eight) times, including thrice to the UAE and twice to Saudi Arabia.
Modi has been honoured with the ‘Order of Zayed’, the UAE’s highest civilian award. Significantly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now India’s “strategic partners”, with close military ties. In fact, right now, Indian Air Force is participating in the multinational joint exercise called “the Exercise Desert Flag-VI” at Al-Dhafra airbase in the UAE, along with air forces of France, the US, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Bahrain. The exercise , which will continue till March 27, includes the Indian contingent with six Su-30 MKI multirole combat fighter aircraft , two C-17 Globemaster III military air lift aircraft and one IL-78 tanker aircraft.
Israel’s excellent relations with India under Modi are too well-known to be elaborated. It is now becoming clearer that Israeli arms and ammunitions have played an important role in our standoff with China in eastern Ladakh. But all this has not deterred Modi enjoying a nice rapport withthe leaders of Iran, the principal rival of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel in the region.
On February 4, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar proposed the inclusion of Iran’s Chabahar port in the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) route. This he said in his address on ”Chabahar Day” at the Maritime India Summit 2021.
It may be noted that besides the traditional energy relations and the Chabahar port, India and Iran have a common interest in Afghanistan. India and Iran have been in touch over developments related to the Doha accord between the US and Taliban.
India and Iran are also working on the Chabahar-Zahedan Railway Project. During the visit of the Prime Minister NarendraModi to Iran in May 2016, a MoU was signed between IRCON International Limited of India and the Construction, Development of Transport and Infrastructure Company (CDTIC) of Iran for the construction of the Chabahar-Zahedan Railway Project. This joint collaboration between the two countries is to provide faster connectivity from the Chabahar Port in Iran to Afghanistan and further to Central Asia. It will bolster the existing connectivity by road from the Chabahar port to Afghanistan.
It is significant here to recall that in September 2020 Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister Jaishankar had separately visited Tehran to discuss trade and regional issues.
On Rajnath Singh’s invitation, Brigadier General Amir Hatami, Iranian Defence Minister, had visited India last month- the first time for any Iranian defence minister in 40 years. Apart from the two defence ministers furthering their bilateral discussions, Hatami also participated, on the sidelines of the Aero India 2021 event in Bengaluru, in the first conclave for the defence ministers of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
If anything, all this only underscores that Modi, unlike any of his predecessors, has been able to play a balancing role in West Asia among the Arabian Gulf, Iran and Israel. All his predecessors were afraid of the “Muslim-factor” in the region and within the country. Therefore, Modi’s acceptability in the region is not a small credit for a person with his “anti-Muslim” image that his detractors have been relentlessly nurturing.