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Sweeping change

Publication Date : 20-05-2014


Narendra Modi is a largely unknown quantity to India's partners abroad and they have some catching up to do.  Some of the contours of future regional and  global dealings of the new government will soon begin to emerge but at this stage one cannot do much more than wait
for developments.  Spare a thought for  Manmohan Singh. He had deep understanding of foreign policy issues and earned international respect for himself and India.

Now that the electoral hurly-burly's over and done, and India has a new leader, the time for stock-taking has commenced. The scale of Modi's victory was not anticipated even by his most ardent supporters, and his being so far clear of anyone else gives him a clear hand that few others have enjoyed.

The election focused more on personalities than on policies, so it has not done much to reveal the agenda for the new government - at this stage, one can say little more than that the emphasis will be on development, which has been Modi's theme song in his home state.

The sense has also been projected that things must be done fast and that there should be no lack of energy in implementing new strategies of governance - some talk has been heard of a 'hundred days strategy', i.e. a concentrated push during the first phase, when the new administration will seek to put its distinctive stamp on events, so as to distinguish itself from its predecessor.

As these early indications suggest, and as the campaign showed, the new rulers have reached out to the electorate with the promise of better management at home, and have not called for any major change in external policy. Not that foreign affairs can remain for long on the backburner, but for the present, governmental attention seems likely to be directed elsewhere.

The world has watched India's elections with attention and has been quick to acknowledge the scale of the success. The conduct of the elections has further enhanced India's democratic credentials and the magnitude of Modi's victory has identified him as a major new factor on the international stage. Congratulations have flooded in from abroad, bringing invitations to visit and expressing readiness to strengthen cooperation with his government. Such reactions are normal in the circumstances but in this particular case there may be more than a touch of curiosity and expectation, for Modi is a largely unknown quantity to India's partners abroad and they have some catching up to do.

The neighbourhood has been particularly quick to respond, which stands to reason for that is where the most immediate impact of the change may be felt. Indeed, Sri Lanka's good wishes reached even before the formal announcement. The quick and fulsome welcome it extended to Modi may reflect the sense that change in Delhi represents an opportunity for Colombo, whose relations with its northern neighbour have been rather troubled in recent times.

To recall, in deference to sentiment in the state of Tamil Nadu,  Manmohan Singh felt unable to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka last year, a decision that gave considerable offence to that country. The state government in Tamil Nadu has come out of the election with flying colours and sentiment about the ethnic minority in Sri Lanka remains strong but nevertheless Colombo might hope to be able to make a fresh beginning with the new government in Delhi.

Elsewhere in South Asia, too, there could be expectations that some pending matters, like that relating to the Teesta waters, could be taken a step forward, and one should note the quick welcome and invitation to Modi that has come from Dhaka. Elsewhere in the region, too, similar good wishes and invitations have been extended.

The bigger challenge relates to dealings with Pakistan. The BJP has been identified with a tough line towards that country, paying particular attention to the security threats from across the border. It has been critical of the readiness of other political parties to pursue dialogue with Pakistan and seek ameliorated ties without first putting the security issue to rest. The BJP is also identified with stronger political measures in J&K that can have the effect of further complicating bilateral relations. Yet it is this same party, with its history of nationalist assertiveness, that has been responsible for the most striking efforts to reach across the barrier and establish a relationship of peace and tranquility. There will therefore be many eyes on how Modi conducts India's relations with its neighbour, and as yet there is not much to indicate his own convictions in the matter.

By contrast, and despite some harsh words during the campaign, Modi's ascent has been seen in Beijing as something to assure continuity and shared benefit between the two countries. Modi has visited China, made room for Chinese companies in Gujarat, and seems set to develop economic and commercial relations with that country, notwithstanding unresolved differences on the border.

Where real change can now be expected is in the approach of a number of Western countries to Modi. Led by the US, backed by several others, these countries have kept Modi at arm's length on account of the communal riots of 2002 in his home state when he was chief minister.

He has been denied travel facilities and been a target of human rights activists at home and abroad. In recent months, seeing how events were shaping in India, Western countries have begun to reach out to  Modi and have tried to mend the breach: we have witnessed a procession of foreign ambassadors at his doorstep, seeking good relations and better business opportunities, though only a little earlier they were not prepared to give him a visa to their countries. Now Obama himself has extended an invitation. While this opens new possibilities on all sides, the human rights issue remains touchy, being driven as much by activist groups as by governments and still requiring much repair work in the future.

Some of the contours of future regional and global dealings of the new government will soon begin to emerge but at this stage one cannot do much more than wait for developments. A more active stewardship of Ministry of External Affairs may well be on the cards but there is nothing to suggest that wholesale change in foreign policy may be on the way, and there is little need of it.

Spare a thought for Manmohan Singh. He had deep understanding of foreign policy issues and earned international respect for himself and the country. He tackled the very difficult task of trying to resolve differences with Pakistan, and if it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who cleared the way, it was Singh who built the onward path. His diplomacy created the ground for a wide-reaching reconciliation that would have made him the reconciler and peacemaker in South Asia. It is unfortunate that he was unable to complete the task. However, others can now build on his legacy, just as he built on what his predecessors had left for him.

The writer is India's former foreign secretary


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