In June this year, just after Prime Minister Narendra Modis visit to Washington, a senior American official spoke of the Modi Doctrine, giving formal recognition to the foreign policy choices adopted by India since May 2014. In his speech at the U.S. Congress, Mr. Modi outlined Indias commitment to the partnership with the U.S. as being a new symphony in play in order to build an international maritime partnership in Asia, to play a leading role in the South Asian neighbourhood, strategically as well as for humanitarian purposes, and to take a strong position on terrorism or cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
A few months later, Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, speaking at the launch of a book, The Modi Doctrine: New Paradigms in Indias Foreign Policy, went on to define it thus: India first, Neighbourhood first, engaging competing global powers, with a focus on the diaspora and on delivery.
A touch of unpredictability
It could be argued that none of these goals are new. While the shift from non-alignment to a U.S. partnership began during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayees tenure, the special maritime partnerships with Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Singapore, as a response to Chinas assertiveness in the South China Sea, go back nearly a decade (2007). The focus on Pravasi Bharatiyas goes back even further.
In his own account of the Gujral doctrine, former Prime Minister I.K. Gujral articulated a SAARC minus Pakistan neighbourhood approach when he said, With neighbours like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity, but gives and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust. And in 2013, when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh articulated his five-point foreign policy objectives, he too put domestic development at the top: The single most important objective of Indian foreign policy has to be to create a global environment conducive to the well-being of our great country.
At the half-way mark in Mr. Modis term, after which governments traditionally turn from foreign policy to domestic elections, what then makes his foreign policy distinct? The answer to that may have come from Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikars comments in the past few months where he has repeatedly referred to the need for unpredictability in Indias defence, nuclear and strategic postures. It is easy to see that Mr. Modis foreign policy thinking, which is out of the box, and taking all by surprise at every turn, has also incorporated this element, right since he invited South Asian leaders to his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014.
Since then, whether it was the sudden moment on a swing with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in Gujarat in 2014, the Republic Day invite to U.S. President Barack Obama, in 2015, or the surprise stops in Kabul and Lahore on his return from Moscow last Christmas, the Prime Ministers foreign forays have had a shock-and-awe character. His closest partnership was forged with the U.S., the country that shut him out for nine years, while his biggest success came from Bangladesh, the country whose citizens he swore during his electoral campaign to shut out. He is yet to visit Israel, the country he spoke of most often as a friend, but he has completed several tours to West Asia to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and has already visited Iran, Israels arch-enemy. None of this could have been gamed in advance by even the keenest watchers of Mr. Modi or of the governments foreign policy.
Crossing red lines
With Pakistan that doctrine of unpredictability has been most pronounced. After more than a year of fits and starts, Mr. Modi decided to restart dialogue with Pakistan and pay a surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015, although the cancellation of India-Pakistan dialogue after the Pathankot attack was probably predictable. In 2016, he announced three strikes on Pakistan in quick succession. On Independence Day, he announced a new, activist policy towards Balochistans freedom movement, a major departure from Indias traditional policy of non-interference. Next came the announcement of cross-Line of Control strikes in retaliation for the Uri attacks, and a departure from Indias policy of keeping such operations covert. Finally came the announcement along with neighbouring countries of a boycott of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit in Pakistan. If he makes good on the threat of abrogating or renegotiating the Indus Waters Treaty, as he seemed to indicate at an election rally in Punjab this month, then that will most certainly be his fourth strike, each one crossing a new red line.
It must be noted that each of these moves has been accompanied by considerable domestic applause and sometimes international approbation. With its obvious first-mover advantages, this approach to staid, constrained and predictable foreign policy has given Mr. Modi some his most successful moments in the past two and a half years. The approach is also not without precedent, just as former U.S. President Richard Nixon who called it the Madman Theory, according to his chief of staff Harry Haldemans memoirs told Henry Kissinger to convey to Russia and the Communist bloc that he was capable of any irrational action (read nuclear) on Vietnam.
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump too has often expressed his desire to be Nixonian on Syria, North Korea, etc, in not allowing other countries to guess his future strategy. His recent surprise call to Taiwans President indicates that he is going ahead with his version of the Madman Theory. However, for a number of reasons and not just because Vietnam didnt go as planned for Nixon it is time to reassess the Modi governments dependence on the doctrines value going forward.
Danger of diminishing returns
To begin with, there is a law of diminishing returns that accompanies unpredictability, as the shock value of the governments manoeuvres wears off, and both adversaries and allies come to expect the unexpected.
Second, not everyone likes surprises. China and Pakistan, most notably, can be expected to counter the doctrine with an overly aggressive defence posture, which would then lead to more tensions at Indias frontiers just when the Modi government may want to focus on economic and domestic policies the most.
There is a law of diminishing returns that accompanies unpredictability, as the shock value of the governments manoeuvres wears off, and both adversaries and allies come to expect the unexpected. Second, not everyone likes surprises. China and Pakistan, most notably, can be expected to counter the doctrine with an overly aggressive defence posture, which would then lead to more tensions at Indias frontiers just when the Modi government may want to focus on economic and domestic policies the most.
The recent spate of attacks on security installations in Jammu and Kashmir indicates that the Pakistani establishment was only momentarily stunned by the surgical strikes announcement and more such attacks may be expected. A doctrine of unpredictability runs counter to the deterrence theory as well, which rests on the sure principle of what the response might be, nuclear or otherwise. This means that the response to a Uri-style attack would have to be something similar to September 29 or stronger, leaving India with very few non-war options.
Indias policy of diplomatically isolating Pakistan may also suffer from this pushback as Pakistan steps up its efforts to engage China, Russia and Iran on connectivity, offering them strategic maritime advantages off its shores which it had not in the past.
Most importantly, a policy of unpredictability works best in an otherwise predictable global scenario. When Mr. Modi took office, oil prices were low, the dollar was stable, Europe was united and the U.S. led by Mr. Obama had set a steady, engaged course in Asia.
Today, none of those factors hold. The U.S. under Mr. Trump is likely to keep relations with India on the upward trajectory in strategic and defence fields but may not be able to deliver on Indian concerns on jobs and immigration. Moreover, should he deliver on his promise to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement and to withdraw U.S. resources from Asia and West Asia, it would change the power balance in this region in favour of China. Closer ties with Russia would also alter the power balance, given the Russia-China axis. As election after election springs a surprise, Britains exit from the European Union may well be followed by Italys exit from the Eurozone, the far rights entry to power in France and Germany, and a strain between the U.S. and NATO.
What will be the nature of western unity and will it be continued? asked Foreign Secretary Dr. S. Jaishankar in a recent speech, adding that when every variable is in flux, imagine the fluidity of the world. The next few years will require more of that imagination from the Modi government as it seeks to define Indias position in the world where a dose of dependability may be at more of a premium than before.
The Article First Appeared InThe Hindu
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