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Building bridges

December 30, 2014

Since sweeping to power in May in India's biggest election victory in a generation, Narendra Modi has made more of an impact in diplomacy rather than in domestic policy, says political analyst Brahma Chellaney.

Narendra Modi in den USA
Image: UNI

Modi has surprised many by investing considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy so early in his term, even though he came to office with little foreign-policy experience. Foreign leaders - from Chinese President Xi Jinping to US President Barack Obama, who will be the guest of honor at India's January 26 Republic Day parade - have made a beeline to call on him.

After just hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin, Modi is preparing to receive Obama at a time when American-led sanctions against Moscow have underscored the risks of a new Cold War. No American president before was the chief guest at India's Republic Day. Modi, who won Time magazine's recent reader poll for "Person of the Year," has also sought to strengthen bilateral partnerships with other key players, including Germany, Japan, Australia and Israel. Building closer ties with important democracies has become the leitmotif of his foreign policy.

When Modi won the election, his critics claimed he would pursue a doctrinaire approach. However, one trademark of Modi's diplomacy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark. Nothing better illustrates his pragmatism than the priority he has accorded - by shaking off US visa-denial humiliation heaped on him over nine years - to restoring momentum to the relationship with America. The US denied Modi a visa over his alleged involvement in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat. Washington maintained the ban even though he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by an inquiry appointed by India's Supreme Court. Yet, when he won the election, Obama was quick to telephone him and invite him to the White House - an invitation Modi accepted, given the critical importance of America to India.

Modi's diplomatic gamble

Another example of Modi's pragmatism is his effort to befriend China. He has invited Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India's infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks. China's foreign direct investment in India, however, remains trifling, with Chinese companies preferring to import primary commodities from India while exporting an avalanche of finished products. China represents Modi's diplomatic gamble, as was highlighted when Xi's visit to India in September coincided with Chinese military incursions into India's Ladakh region.

Another regional adversary, Pakistan, poses a different set of challenges for Modi, given the Pakistani military's use of terrorist proxies. Six years after the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks, Pakistan has yet to begin the trial of the seven Pakistani perpetrators in its custody. Adding insult to injury, Pakistani authorities recently helped United Nations-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed - the architect of the Mumbai attacks - to stage a large public rally, including by running special trains to ferry participants.

Modi's Pakistan policy blends a firm response to border provocations with friendly signals (for example, he invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration and asked Indian schools to honor the victims of the recent Peshawar attack in Pakistan with a two-minute silence).

India set to become multi-aligned

At home, Modi has shaken up the reactive and diffident foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths. His policy appears geared to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality.

In essence, this means that India - a founding leader of the nonaligned movement - is likely to become multi-aligned. Building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings will not only enable India to advance its core interests but also help it to preserve strategic autonomy, in keeping with its longstanding preference for policy independence.

One challenge for him is to carefully balance closer cooperation with major players in a way that advances India's economic and security interests, without New Delhi being forced to choose one power over another. For example, one balancing act is to restore momentum to a flagging relationship with Moscow while boosting ties with the US, which has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India. The India-Russia camaraderie of the Cold War era has been replaced by India-US bonhomie. Modi must stem the new risks as Russia moves closer to India's strategic rivals - selling top-of-the-line weapon systems to China and signing a military-cooperation agreement with Pakistan in November.

Bridge between East, West

Despite the challenges Modi confronts, India seems set to become multi-aligned, while tilting more toward the US and other democracies in Europe and Asia. Yet, importantly, India will continue to chart its own independent course. For example, it has refused to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia.

Because of its geographical location, India is the natural bridge between the West and the East, and between Europe and Asia. Through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy, India can truly play the role of a bridge between the East and the West, including serving as a link between the competing demands of the developed and developing worlds. At a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, the world needs such a bridge-builder.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of "Water, Peace, and War" (Rowman & Littlefield, USA).