The Modi government, which took office for the second time on May 30 in New Delhi, will confront serious peripheral and global foreign policy challenges. India’s strategic alignment faultiness requires profound rethinking in South Block in New Delhi to preserve its principle of strategic autonomy instead of playing second fiddle to the United States in the evolving global strategic environment. It needs to respond immediately and intelligently to four critical issues i.e., the post-Pulwama military standoff with Pakistan, increasing tension between Iran and the United States, balancing its Indo-Pacific strategic partnership with its soothing trade with China, and continuing its military hardware procurements from both Moscow and Washington.
Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used anti-Pakistan rhetoric to secure a landslide victory in the recent Lok Sabha election. The BJP media wing intelligently cashed in the post-Pulwama military standoff with Pakistan to restore the declining popularity of Prime Minister Modi due to the failure of his economic policy and corruption scandal. A.K. Verma, a retired professor at Chhatrapati Shahu Ji Maharaj University in Kanpur, said: “Rahul Gandhi had made a populist pitch in the recent campaign, highlighting a BJP corruption scandal and promising voters jobs and a minimum income.” However, Congress failed to counter BJP’s national security narrative. Modi and his cohorts systematically increased tension with Pakistan to popularize his election slogan “Modi is chowkidar” (the watchman) and dares to teach a lesson to nuclear-armed Pakistan. The chowkidar slogan was well-received by the electors despite Congress leader’s proclamation that “chowkidar chor hai” (the watchman is a thief).
The Modi government has increased tension with Pakistan for mustering the electoral support of nationalist forces in India after Pulwama incident. Mohammed Ayoob, Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University opined that Prime Minister Modi successfully made national security a central theme in his election campaign. He pointed out: “The attack and the Indian air strike deep into Pakistani territory in response to it provided the BJP with an election bonanza by creating the image of a decisive prime minister who could teach Pakistan a lesson even at the cost of risking a war between the nuclear-armed neighbors.” Mr. Modi’s warmongering proved to be a huge boost during the election. It was reported that: “In the weeks following the airstrikes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw a huge upsurge in his approval ratings, rising from 32% at the beginning of the year to over 60%.”
Currently, it seems complicated for Prime Minister Modi to act prudently to lower the tension with Pakistan. Three months’ high alert at the border and politicization of the Indian Armed Forces contributed positively in Prime Minister Modi’s election campaign but affected armed forces’ reputation adversely. Therefore, he will continue his muscular policy to deal with arch-rival Pakistan without allowing the escalation of the conflict at the Line of Control. Despite the need for normalization of Pakistan-India relations, he prefers tension with Pakistan to conceal his anti-Kashmiri policy and for the sake of domestic politics. Modi’s Kashmir policy will further increase violence in the Indian Occupied Kashmir. Instead of altering his aggressive Kashmir policy to stabilize the situation, he will continue blaming Pakistan. Also, the new Government will increase defence spending to restore the ‘punctured’ reputation of the Indian Armed Forces and pursue the regional strategic objectives with military might.
The biggest challenge for the Modi Government is to rationalize the shift in India's nuclear posturing towards Pakistan. During his previous tenure, he had tried to redefine and revamp India’s nuclear doctrine. On March 18, 2019, Indian Navy announced the deployment of nuclear-propelled submarine – INS Arihant. Hitherto, the Indian Army deployed nuclear-capable missiles. On April 14, Prime Minister Modi claimed that he had called Pakistan’s ‘nuclear bluff’ by carrying out airstrikes within Pakistan. Many security analysts have already expressed their severe reservations on Prime Minister Modi’s nuclear jingoism. They were immensely disturbed with his pronouncement that “India’s nuclear weapons had not been saved for Diwali.” Shyam Saran, India's former Foreign Secretary, commented, "Many norms have been transgressed and several thresholds crossed in the ongoing Lok Sabha election campaign, whether in the communal and sectarian polarisation of Indians or the politicization of the armed forces. Now another threshold has been crossed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his most recent remarks on India’s nuclear weapons delivered in a threatening tone.”
During his previous tenure, Prime Minister Modi intelligently maintained balance in its relations with both the United States and Iran. The new Government desires to continue purchasing Iranian crude oil without annoying Trump administration. It is the second-biggest Iranian oil importer. For example, it bought 23.6 million tons of Iranian oil in the financial year ending in March 2019. Washington ratcheted up the pressure on New Delhi to discontinue its crude oil imports from Iran, therefore, the Modi government decided to follow former restrictions on buying Iranian oil.
The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited New Delhi in May 2019 and met his then Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj to ensure the continuity of strategic and economic ties. Undeniably, it is difficult for India to suspend its strategic and economic ties with Iran entirely. Accepting Trump administration’s demands means spoiling a trilateral MOU with Iran and Afghanistan. Being a party to MOU, New Delhi plans to invest billion dollars in India-Iran-Afghan multilateral projects including around $21 billion in the Chabahar-Hajigak corridor. Without developing Chabahar Port on the Gulf of Oman along with associated rail lines and road connectivity between Iran and Afghanistan, India cannot bypass Pakistan in reaching Central Asia and Eastern Russia.
The outgoing Government's Indo-Pacific strategy cements Indo-U.S. strategic partnership and binds India more closely with Japan, Australia and littoral states of the South China Sea, but alarms China. India is the beneficiary of China’s economic growth, and therefore it would not be in the interest of the new Government in office to confront China publically by visibly tilting towards the United States and disrupting bilateral trade that touched $89.6 billion in 2017-2018.
The new Government will require a diplomatic proficiency to keep Russia on its side without making real headway in the purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile defense systems to avoid the American sanctions. On May 6, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in New Delhi that India could balance the trade figures by buying more American weaponry such as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missile defence systems as an alternative to Russian S-400s. The U.S. offer seems attractive for India militarily, but it is objectionable economically and diplomatically.
The American defensive systems will technologically fit in better with other American and Israeli military equipment, which India already purchased in the recent years or is contracted to acquire soon, but are proportionately costly. In comparison, India would pay $15 billion for a unit or battery of THAAD with six launchers, whereas Russia agreed to sell five S-400s, each of which consists of eight launchers, pricing $5.4 billion. Besides, preferring American systems over Russian agreed S-400 deal would undermine Moscow and New Delhi’s strategic partnership. The Trump administration’s defensive systems offer is entirely aimed at punishing Russia.
To conclude, Prime Minister Modi will encounter various foreign and strategic challenges while dealing with peripheral and global military, economic, and political matters.
The writer is Professor at School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. He is also the author of India’s Surgical Strike Stratagem: Brinksmanship and Response. E-mail: [email protected]
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