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The Modi foreign policy doctrine: India as a smart power

The opening address by the President of India to the new Parliament is really an occasion for the new government to outline its policy agenda for the next five years. The presidential address on June 9 was probably one of the most ambitious in the history of independent India: the goal of building 100 new smart cities; a promise to provide urban facilities to rural India; a commitment to providing basic needs (housing, electricity and clean drinking water) to every Indian by the 75th anniversary of Indian independence (2022); and a pledge to ensure that the demographic dividend of a youthful India is realised through a massive programme of skilling as well opening an Indian Institute of Technology and an Indian Institute of Management in every state.

It was on foreign policy, however, that the Modi government was most surprising.

Power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others. In international relations, as the Harvard academic Joseph Nye reminds us, power can be exercised in three ways: by threatening or actually using military force, by offering economic incentives or imposing economic sanctions, or by building what Nye famously dubbed “soft power”. That is, the soft power of nations to persuade others based on the attractiveness of their technology, politics, culture, ideas or ideals.

If president Pranab Mukherjee’s opening address to the Indian parliament is anything to go by, the foreign policy of the new Indian government under prime minister Narendra Modi will likely employ a nuanced combination of all three of Nye’s instruments of international influence. All those who had expected the Modi foreign policy doctrine to be defined by a new muscularity or even machtpolitik – the wielding of the conventional stick – will probably be disappointed.

Instead, there will be a renewed emphasis on using the carrots of economic levers and soft power. This suggests a thoughtful understanding of the importance of what Nye terms “smart power”: a clever combination of the tools of conventional hard, or military and economic, power and soft power. It is this integrated approach that will best serve India in a complex interdependent world, which is defined as much by conflict and competition as it is by cooperation and the need for greater coordination in confronting common global threats.

The incipient Modi doctrine has five key elements. First, and most important, is the idea that a strong, self-reliant and self-confident India will pursue a foreign policy of “enlightened national interest”. National interest is a contested term; enlightened national interest even more so. Often national interest is defined as raison d’ etat, or “reason of state”, and can be viewed as the selfish pursuit of national ambitions, mostly as defined by the government of the day.

Enlightened national interest adds a moral prism to the policy. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his masterly Democracy in America, in the early 19th century, he described enlightened self-interest as that which made the United States unique: the ability of its citizens to work for the common good because the pursuit of a better life for everyone serves the self-interest of all.

In international diplomacy, enlightened national interest is arguably the recognition that the narrow pursuit of self-interest in an interdependent world can lead to suboptimal policy outcomes. Japan – a nation Modi clearly admires – has used the term enlightened national-interest to define many of its policies, including those steering its overseas development assistance. Through supporting other nations via giving and via attractive development funding and loans, Japan has greatly increased its regional influence. The concept opens up the possibilities of creating cooperative outcomes for many issues, even those traditionally seen as difficult, zero-sum conflicts by realists in the establishment.

Within the Indian tradition, this sense of enlightened national-interest is captured in this verse from Hindu scripture, the Mahoupinishad, “Only small men discriminate by saying ‘one is a relative, the other is a stranger’. For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family.” Its essence, it may be recalled, can be found in the BJP’s manifesto as well.

And while Mr Modi may not be comfortable with this notion, his idea of enlightened national interest sits at ease with Nehruvian thinking. After all, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who believed that while foreign policy must be rooted in a spirit of realism, it should not be stymied by the narrow realism that lets you look only at the tip of the nose and little beyond.

Second, is the idea that India will help to build and strengthen a democratic, peaceful, stable and economically inter-linked neighbourhood. This, of course, is not particularly new thinking. In the past, the Gujral Doctrine was perhaps the strongest articulation of a policy of reaching out to the neighbourhood, even through gestures that did not demand reciprocity. What was both novel and encouraging, however, was the presence of heads of government or senior representatives from all the South Asian countries at the swearing in of Prime Minister Modi and his Cabinet, effectively turning the ceremony into a regional celebration of democracy.

In the recent past, India has not been explicitly seen as a champion of democracy in the region. Whether or not the strong links in other parts of the world between mature democracies – and absence of conflict – are mirrored in South Asia, it is clear that the strengthening of democracy in the region is the first step towards building what the political scientist, Karl Deutsch, described as a security community. That is, a region in which the large-scale use of violence has become unthinkable.

That said, it must be recognised that only a strong and economically resurgent India can lead the process of South Asia integration and so much will now depend on how quickly India’s economy can be revived. Meanwhile, however, enlightened national interest will demand India considers making unilateral gestures to serve longer-term self-interest. For instance, arriving at an accord on the sharing of the Teesta rivers with a stridently India-friendly regime in Bangladesh would clearly be an important step that should not be undermined by the capricious behaviour of one leader from West Bengal.

Third is Modi’s emphasis on soft-power, explained through yet another Modi alliteration of five Ts: tradition, talent, tourism, trade and technology. For this to translate into reality, will require real effort. For a start, the Ministry of External Affairs will need to be restructured and every major mission abroad would need to include a trade, scientific and cultural counsellor knowledgeable in the relevant domains.

In addition, the role of the Diaspora in the future development of India has been emphasised. One clear step that would ensure deeper engagement between India and the Diaspora would be to allow Non Resident Indians to carry dual passports. For many Indians continuing to hold an Indian passport is a badge of honour which they will not give up for any convenience, glory or money. Allowing dual citizenship for NRIs carries virtually no additional risk; and indeed most countries in the world allow their citizens this privilege.

Fourth, the incipient Modi doctrine moves beyond the former delineation between “non-alignment”, “non-alignment 2.0”, and “alignment” to suggest that India could follow a policy of what MP Shashi Tharoor may describe as “multi-track alignment” with all the great powers. This was emphasised in the President’s address that explicitly stated the government will work with China to develop a strategic and cooperative partnership, work with Japan to build modern infrastructure, build on the firm foundations of the relations with Russia, pursue the relationship with the United States with renewed vigour and make concerted efforts to achieve progress in key areas with the European Union.

Finally, there was only about 50 words of the address devoted to what may have been seen, pre-election, as the most vital part of a future Modi government’s foreign policy: the willingness to raise issues of concern at a bilateral level (read Pakistan) and the uncontroversial claim that stability can only be built in the region if there is an end of the export of terrorism. Clearly, concerns about Pakistan have deliberately not been emphasised as this may still be a work in progress. Or perhaps the Modi government recognises that there is much merit in the adage: carry a big stick, but speak with a soft voice. For, in the past, as my colleague Ashok Guha once remarked: “India has carried a toothpick, and shouted from the roof top and from television studios.”

If the Narendra Modi government can deliver on the promises within the President’s speech, it will make history. If he lets himself be distracted by divisive social issues or is provoked into adopting zealous nationalism, he will prove his critics right.

As the election results were announced, I was interviewed by a Chinese Radio station. The first question they asked me was whether Narendra Modi would be India’s Deng Xiaoping. I replied tentatively that it was too early to tell and that, in any case, India was a messy democracy and not an authoritarian state. However, if Modi does want to be like an Indian Deng, it is well worth recalling the great Chinese leader’s 24 Character Strategy:

Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership

In other words, India requires stability within and peace in our neighbourhood and beyond for at least the next decade to emerge as a great power of some standing. During that period it is best not to get dragged in external conflicts, assume leadership or prominence on the international stage, or attract attention. That will be Mr Modi’s biggest challenge.

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