Modi and Jaishankar have become to foreign policy what Rao and Manmohan were once to economy
The Modi-Jaishankar duo has laid the groundwork for India to unleash its rise with an open and clear articulation of its desire to become a leading power of the international system
Year was 1991. The Gulf War had left India in a precarious situation. Just $6 billion were left as forex reserves while oil prices had shot the sky. Complicating the problem was a fall in remittances that year from the Indian workers working overseas. All this combined with India’s own disturbed vitals in the form of a fiscal deficit at 8 per cent and a current account deficit at around 2.5 per cent. A sovereign default was staring hard at India with the government forced to take emergency steps such as devaluing currency and pledging national gold holdings to boost forex reserves.
The Rao government was formed in just June 1991 with a prime minister who had already retired from active politics and a finance minister who thought rumours of his induction in the cabinet were meant to be a joke, only to be tracked the very day of swearing-in and asked to be present at the Rashtrapati Bhawan by Rao.
The Rao government getting a chance at helming India for the next five years was no small miracle either. PV Narasimha Rao was heading a minority government after an election that had seen the lowest voter turnout till that date. It was this minority government that went on to make history. The reform programme that was implemented by prime minister Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh had unleashed the vast potential of India as a large economy, results of which will be most apparent when India will become the third largest economy at the turn of this current decade.
When one revisits the year 1991 in India’s history and gathers thoughts on its significance for India’s destiny three decades later, there is an uncanny resemblance that is found between Rao-Manmohan combination and Modi-Jaishankar partnership — but the latter is in the domain of foreign policy. Modi’s own election as the PM of the country was nothing short of a miracle. He was once a man who was criticised by members of his own party. However, a leap of faith by the top leadership in the BJP had placed him firmly in the middle of election chaos with his face launching a thousand voluntary campaigns on ground by the supporters of his party. 2014 wasn’t just an election, it was a wave. The BJP had won a massive 282 seats on its own as Modi became the first prime minister in the last three decades to have won a clear majority with 66 percent of the electorate coming out to vote. In 2019, he repeated the miracle with a 7 per cent increase in vote-share from 2014. 2019 was also the year when he chose Dr S Jaishankar as his external affairs minister, a hand that had helped him navigate the maze of international diplomacy right from 2015 as the foreign secretary of India.
The Modi-Jaishankar duo has since then laid the groundwork for India to unleash its rise as a great power with an open and clear articulation of its desire to become a leading power of the international system. For them the catalyst year was 2020. An enraging pandemic had arrested India’s increasing diplomatic footprint with outreach as far as to Pacific Island countries and the largest gathering of African leaders in New Delhi during the Third India-Africa Forum Summit in 2015. While the entire world was only grappling with effects of Covid-19, India was also facing an aggressive neighbour in eastern Ladakh which incidentally also had a role in the pandemic as well. This led India to announce an aatmanirbhar policy to reduce its economic dependence on China and also sign up for the trilateral Supply Chain Resilience Initiative along with Australia and Japan.
Since then a new era has begun in India’s foreign policy, India’s engagement with China is over for all practical purposes. Jaishankar couldn’t have stressed it enough when he said India-China relations can’t be normal until the border situation isn’t normal. India has also begun to assert its control over the Indian Ocean in a stronger way as it expressed its displeasure publicly on the docking of the Chinese ship Yuan Wang-5 but an American ship docked for the first time at an Indian port when a US cargo ship docked at an L&T dockyard in Chennai.
There is a clear will to indulge in external as well as internal balancing with China. But along with this, India is looking to become a leading power in its own right without letting the China problem become a compulsion for its alignment with other great powers. This was most visible in India’s conduct during the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Despite pressure on India to condemn Russia, India not only stayed clear of any such move but also bought crucial oil at discounted prices availing the offer that Russia made to friendly countries. While the US and other Western countries are important to balance China, India also recognises Russia’s value as a time-tested ally. In the Russia-India-China triangle, India counts on Russia as well to help it balance China since both countries are geographically closer to India than the West is. Finally, the West had to concede the point to India as reflected in the Quad statement that was much milder in tone towards Russia to respect Indian sensitivities unlike the bilateral statements that the Western countries issued after discussing the Russian situation with each other.
And lastly, India’s aatmanirbharta is not China-centric alone. Fulfillment of India’s economic self-interest to become a power of great consequence is the top priority and no diplomatic pressure or imperative can force India to divert from it. This is apparent in India’s refusal to join the China-led RCEP or even the more recent trade pillar of US-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Jaishankar has clearly articulated it at various forums that India won’t be a part of disadvantageous deals at the cost of its own economic strength which is a commendable stand by a developing economy like ours. A careful analysis of India’s behaviour since 2020 highlights these three aspects of its foreign policy for which the Modi-Jaishankar duo can’t be credited enough.
The author is a PhD in International Relations from the Department of IR, South Asian University. She writes on India’s foreign policy and politics of the Indo-Pacific region. Views expressed are personal.
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