2014 was a good year for Indian diplomacy, 2015 can be better


modi-visits12014 was assuring for India’s foreign policy. There were many incoming and outgoing visits by the heads of the government and heads of the state. India’s interaction with leading powers like the US, Russia, China, Japan, Australia and South Korea took place in this year. There was a gap at the top level in April and most of May due to the election process in the country. With the change of the government in May 26 after the polls, some expected a definite change in the country’s foreign policy owing to ideological reasons. But belying their hopes, this did not occur as it logically should. What happened was not a shift in the country’s foreign policy, but in the emphasis in certain areas.

The new emphasis was reflected in the country’s  ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Another feature that emerged was a more proactive engagement with major political and economic powers for inviting investments. Prime Minister Modi has even personally reached out to Indians settled abroad, particularly during his visits to the US and Australia and urged them to be partners in the ‘Make in India’ programme.

The exchange of visits between the prime ministers of Australia and India, between the prime ministers of Japan and India in the same year shows the reassuring nature of the relationships. Mr Modi’s visit to the US is now being reciprocated by US President Barack Obama’s visit to India on January 26, 2015. Following South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s visit to India in January, this year, India’s External Affairs Minister visited the East Asian country December 28-30.

The most striking example which showed that that there was no shift in the country’s foreign policy was India’s position on Israel’s attack on Gaza strip. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj assured in the Parliament that there was no change in India’s policy towards Israel and Palestine. India condemned the inhuman attack on the civilian population in Gaza and called for restraint and restoration of peace and the dialogue process.

The noticeable change in the emphasis in the foreign policy was marked from day one of the new government on May 26 when Narendrabhai Damodardass Modi took his oath as the prime minister of the country. The leaders of all the SAARC countries were invited at the swearing in ceremony and on the next day, Prime Minister Modi, thereafter, had bilateral engagements with all the SAARC leaders including the Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament who represented Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The message the Prime Minister Modi gave was that India intends to make South Asian countries partners in its economic development and present the region as a united bloc in the global fora.

But Mr Modi’s ambition hit the roadblock when the foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan at Islamabad was called off as the Pakistan High Commissioner in India Abdul Basit went ahead to talk with the separatist Hurriyat leaders of Kashmir. India maintained that the Kashmir issue can be resolved bilaterally between India and Pakistan without involvement of any third party. This had its impact on the 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu. Pakistan refused to give its consent to the signing of three agreements – cooperation in power sector, motor vehicle agreement and regional railways agreement. Finally, better sense prevailed and the agreement on cooperation in power sector was signed after the SAARC leaders met at the retreat. At the retreat, Prime Minister Modi shook hands with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and exchanged pleasantries.

Imodi-visitsndia had long been pleading with Pakistan to take action against terrorists operating on its soil and booking those involved in 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. After the recent gunning down of innocent children at an Army school in Peshawar, Pakistan has decided to take firm against the terrorists. Many analysts believe that this may be a turning point in Pakistan’s policy with its declared intention to be firm on terrorists. However, the recent flip-flop over the detention of Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, a 26/11 accused, shows that Pakistan may continue with double standards as far as terrorism against India is concerned.

India, as it well known, has border dispute China. But the political differences between India and China has not affected economic cooperation. Ideally, the relations between India and Pakistan should follow this model. Apart from allowing smooth entry of India goods, Pakistan should also give access to Indian goods to enter Afghanistan by the land route. During the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India, a host of agreements on economic and cultural cooperation were signed. China also assured $ 20 billion investment to India. Looking ahead, bolstering relations with China will remain a major challenge and opportunity for India.

As a new year begins, India is expected to accelerate its Act East policy. In this regard, the new government will build on the successes in 2014. Modi’s Japan visit was a big success as it fetched 3.5 trillion yen public and private investment and financing within a span of five years. Prime Minister Abe also pledged ODA loan of 50 billion yen to India Infrastructure Finance Company Ltd for  public-private partnership infrastructure projects in India. Modi deftly stepped up ‘Buddha diplomacy’ with South Asia and Southeast Asian countries to strengthen the bonds of integration. He garnered support for Nalanda University at the East Asia Summit. Giving momentum to his plans, he declared the  ‘Act East Policy’ and extended it to the Pacific Islands by raising India-Pacific Islands’ Forum dialogue to the summit level. India is ready to join the Regional Economic Cooperation Partnership (RECP) agreement in the region that includes 10 ASEAN countries, Australia, New Zealand and East Asian countries. Australia has agreed to supply uranium to India’s nuclear power plants.

In terms of multilateral diplomacy, the BRICS summit in Fortaleza brought some good news to India. At the summit, the agreement to set up a development bank was sealed, with all the five countries agreeing to make an Indian the first CEO of the bank. During his visit to Brazil, Prime Minister Modi also met leaders of Latin American countries, giving a new bounce to India’s diplomatic efforts in the region. At the G20 summit in Brisbane, India made its presence felt with its suggestions for dealing with base erosion and profit shifting by multinational companies. India also played a role in shaping key  outcomes, including an automatic exchange of tax information to curb the menace of black money.

By all accounts, 2014 has been a great year for Indian diplomacy under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. Going by this record, one can expect a substantive event-packed diplomatic calendar in 2015 that promises to raise India’s diplomatic profile and bring in the much-needed foreign investment.

(Ashok B. Sharma is a senior journalist. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author)