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Fear of jejune enthusiasm

After India’s debacle in running a successful foreign policy in the concluding term, how far can Modi alter the path of India’s diplomacy?

As India awaits the verdict on the new national government, exactly after 10 days from now, diplomatic circles are worried about a repeat of the same or worse scenario in the corridors of international relations should Narendra Modi return to power. After a microanalysis of the performance of Modi government's five years in the areas of international affairs, most of the foreign relations experts feel that his comeback as the prime minister would be a huge setback in transforming India into a strong, booming, and associative country.

During the Modi regime, social bickering, and general hostility affected India's ability to run a successful foreign policy in the neighbourhood. Our shrinking influence in the India Ocean region and in South Asia is a direct outcome of Modi's lack of foreign policy homework. Modi government's random and immature dealings with our neighbours have resulted in a serious dislocation in our relationships in our immediate ambit. Be it Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Maldives, Nepal or Bhutan, we only have alienated friends.

Modi has always been in election mode after becoming prime minister in 2014. For the first two years, he was in the playfulness of a massive election victory. For the next two years, he made himself overburdened with the pleasure of being the sole saviour of his Bhartiya Janata Party in state elections. Finally, his whole focus is on somehow winning the 2019 general elections. Therefore, for a full five years, Modi has been running a mad race for self-gratification. He spared no opportunity to hug fellow world leaders without having any strategic perception. He believed in the self-assumed power of his personal charisma in dealing with foreign policy matters. But his jejune enthusiasm for developing personal chemistry miserably failed, especially with China and with our other immediate neighbours.

Modi is not one of those to accept their mistake. He belongs to a breed which does not learn from the mistakes. Foreign policy wizards are of the opinion that unless an alternative diplomatic strategy is adopted, India will not be able to maintain its international position in times to come. It requires a change in the leadership of the government because Modi will again prove to be Modi and it would make any different policy articulation impossible if he is at the helm of affairs for next five years also.

Modi will never realise that hugging a world leader does not lead to any pledge in international diplomacy. He will always refuse to accept that personal charisma cannot be a foreign policy tool in dealing with world powers. He is not able to understand the importance of intensive homework when it comes to performing on the global stage. What he has said in a boastful manner in his various TV interviews during electioneering, anyone can predict that Modi will not accept the fact that his hug diplomacy has totally failed and different approaches are crucial in regaining the trust of our neighbours, including Pakistan and China. Only a prime minister with a changed mindset will be able to take India into a new foreign policy direction.

Serving tea with own hands, taking to a dinner out in a small isolated restaurant, changing the costumes three times a day and putting forward uninvited one-sided hugs are not something that can be defined as using soft power. In a world undergoing multi-power disorder, you need a more specific, sincere and well thought out approach. But Modi's perpetual denial mode is the principal hurdle in presenting India as a country with liberal, stabilised and comprehensive ideas in the world rung.

I know several foreign policy scholars who were staunch supporters of Modi till five-six years back and expected that his hyperbole of diplomatic reforms would be translated into action once elected. All of them are now lamenting to the wall. They describe the Modi government as a government in which 'only Modi counts' and a government that is 'bowing to the powerful and bullying the weak'. These scholars see Modi as compulsorily deferential to the US and China. The net result of this has been the neglect of old friends like Russia and Iran.

According to one of the prominent diplomacy scholars, 'there is no coherent vision driving the frenzied visiting and eventing that we have witnessed for some time'. In fact, the situation around us and the world over has changed drastically over the past few years with the coming to power of new authoritarians, or "alpha-males" in China, the US, Russia, Japan, Turkey and India. It needs major corrections.

India is in a situation where it cannot rely on any other world power to promote its prosperity. Why any other established power would like to see a potential competitor rising? Therefore, our way forward lies in true strategic autonomy. The US nowadays is pulling back and unwilling to underwrite an international order. China is moving in a blankness in an ever-expanding manner. India's real strategic focus should be on China. The multi-faceted provocations from China require an Indian response across the entire rainbow of power — from economics to politics to military to ideas. Pakistan is a key distraction but unity of the subcontinent requires neutralisation of Pakistan too.

Can we hand over the responsibility of facing these challenges to Modi again? Can Modi alter the path of India's foreign policy? Is his diplomacy track record convincing for India's bright and sustainable global future? Will he be able to dilute his obstinacy so that India can march in the right direction of foreign affairs? There is a serious wave of apprehensions in the Central Hall of Indian diplomacy.

Unless our next government ensures that it will listen, not lecture; learn, not threaten; foreign policy course is bound to be directionless. India has to enhance its economic and border safety by earning the respect of others and showing respect for them. Foreign policy is effectively the assertion of many individual countries intersecting on the global marketplace. It is not something that you can decide on your whims and fancies. You have to figure out how to get your interest served in a way that meets the interests and needs of these other countries you deal with.

In international relations, a great deal has to do with historical circumstances and sense and perception of people. Foreign policy summits are no Lady Gaga events. Formal or informal, they always have outcomes in formal shape. When we thump our chests for any surgical or crude strike, we must realise that when diplomacy ends war begins. The next Prime Minister of India has to be vigilant of the fact that the purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for his own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world by safeguarding our national interests at the same time. Modi, therefore, does not qualify for the top job again.

(The author is Editor & CEO of News Views India and a national office bearer of the Congress party. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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