What is Modi government's foreign policy - response from the MEA awaited

That in a single line is the institutional crisis that has gripped the foreign policy establishment.

 |  5-minute read |   28-06-2017
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1. Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei talked about the ongoing Kashmir conflict in his Eid ul-Fitr remarks.

India's official response: A response from the Ministry of External Affairs is awaited.

2. Chinese troops transgress Sikkim sector, jostle with Indian troops. The Chinese also destroyed two bunkers. Indian troops have had to form a human wall along the Line of Actual Control to stop the People's Liberation Army personnel. To add insult to injury the PLA soldiers took pictures and video-graphed the incident and ensured it went viral on social media.

3. China has abruptly blocked the movement of pilgrims going to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet and said no pilgrims will be allowed till the face-off is resolved.

All newspapers reporting the incident wrote a bland single line "a response from the MEA is awaited".

And, that in a single line is the institutional crisis that has gripped India's foreign policy establishment, created a series of forest fires in our neighbourhood and ensured a lame and tardy response to them.

Why are newspapers forced to write this line?

swa_062817121554.jpgWhen was the last time Swaraj, an extremely able minister, went on a foreign visit?

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj was in office and very much present in the South Block. So was the entire MEA establishment. Swaraj has tweeted about the opposition's presidential candidate, Meira Kumar, accusing the latter of not allowing her to speak as the leader of Opposition. She posted a video of a 2013 Lok Sabha speech in which the former Speaker was seen repeatedly interrupting the then Leader of Opposition, Swaraj.

Trouble is that, according to authoritative sources, the Iran and China instances are illustrative of the MEA having been entirely muscled out of foreign policy and security space which is run as a three-man show by the trio of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an all-powerful BJP general secretary, Ram Madhav, and the national security advisor, Ajit Doval, who has a penchant for publicity.

Consider this headline, which was across all media, yesterday: "PM Modi saved from a possible embarrassment by NSA Ajit Doval". The story was about how Modi's sheaf of papers with his prepared remarks blew away and how Doval with much agility retrieved them twice.

Headlines from PM Modi's first meeting with President Donald Trump in the White House! Not really, but that's how media management of foreign policy is being done these days.

P Chidambaram, senior congress leader and former Union home and finance minister, says, "Using the Army as the principal instrument to resolve the unrest in Kashmir valley has caused a huge setback to national security. The evidence lies in the increase in infiltration, displacement of villagers in the border and the huge rise in casualties among security forces and civilians."

A fair indictment when you see the spiralling death toll even among the Jammu & Kashmir Police, and the fact that even a school was attacked. And a delegitimised Mehbooba Mufti clings to office in alliance with the BJP sans any solutions on offer.

As India's only Muslim majority state goes back inexorably to the worst time of militancy of the early 1990s, the BJP with its muscular majoritarianism virtually holds Muslims across India hostage to the violence in the Valley.

Witness the studied silence on the spate of lynchings of minorities (post the murder of Mohammad Akhlaq in 2015) in BJP-ruled states such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana. It has become a daily bloody tally drawing little or no condemnation and action.

MEA sources say the world is watching with great interest as we commit blunder after blunder in the Valley and in our treatment of minorities.

Iran has always been India's friend and while they have spoken about Kashmir earlier it was not so pointed. Issues that had been treated as settled by history are open again. This is a fundamental shift and needs to be immediately checked, say experts.

"It's quite simple — you cannot use the Valley to score points against Muslims across India to get votes. You have virtually made them disappear electorally in Uttar Pradesh by not giving a single ticket to Muslims despite their huge presence. Ensured polarisation against Muslims in the fray from other parties. Sent out a message by all ministers boycotting the President's Eid celebrations. This minority baiting while yielding electoral results is going to draw huge international attention and help Pakistan and China," says a senior MEA official.

It's no accident that China made incursion into Sikkim after the hugely publicised "surgical strikes" against Pakistan which does not seem to have gained any of the results which the government had promised.

While most prime ministers, including Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, wanted a big say in foreign affairs, their office and the NSA had not hobbled the foreign office to this extent. The foreign minister still had a say in policy matters and did make frequent visits overseas.

When was the last time Swaraj, an extremely able minister, went on a foreign visit?

Swaraj has been to Myanmar in August 2016 and also visited west Asia in 2016. When she took office she visited Bangladesh in June, Bhutan and Nepal.

China and Pakistan have quite simply ganged up and are running rings around the security establishment. Doval, who has no domain experience in foreign affairs and was exposed to be out of his depth during India's abortive NSG exemption bid, is in a bind.

Sources say China has ensured that Nepal is now completely in its sphere of influence, it is making economic inroads into Sri Lanka and Bhutan and via its belt and road plan has effectively sewn up the neighbourhood. This is Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature foreign policy initiative, which seeks to rebalance globalisation and ensure an open world economy.

As of now we seem to have no efficacious institutional response to even the threat to our influence in our neighbourhood. We react on a crisis-to-crisis basis such as boycotting the one belt, one road summit held by China in May this year.

So with a hostile Pakistan and a bellicose China what will India do? Of course, "a response from the MEA is awaited".

Also read: Modi diplomacy needs to go beyond hugs and hand-holding

Writer

Swati Chaturvedi Swati Chaturvedi @bainjal

The writer is a journalist.

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