Of course, he has no choice.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has his hands full this month — flying to Singapore Wednesday to attend a bunch of meetings, including an ASEAN summit and another with the leaders of Australia, US, Japan and India, the so-called Quad. Then he goes onto the Maldives on 17 November to attend the swearing-in ceremony of President Ibrahim Solih, and later in the month to Argentina for the G-20 summit – where he will meet Donald Trump again.
Mr Modi is giving up precious campaigning hours in the ongoing five state assembly elections in favour of his foreign policy duties as prime minister. Of course, he has no choice. But it is also clear that six months before the mother of all elections in 2019, he believes his foreign policy is a major element of his successful tenure.
The record on the ground, however, is less obvious. Modi set out to make India’s neighbourhood his priority, inviting all its leaders to a much-publicised swearing-in ceremony in May 2014. Four years later, though, several of these countries have much more ambivalent relationships with India.
Let’s start with the Maldives. Modi did well by refusing to travel to Male as Yameen the dictator began to lean closer and closer to China. Certainly, the PM made amends for former PM Manmohan Singh’s misstep in 2012, when he refused to back former Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed after he was ousted in a coup.
You could argue that it was the Maldivians, and less India, who actually overthrew their own dictator in the recent elections – certainly, that was a surprising show of democratic strength in the Indian Ocean. Delhi was quite surprised by the result. Omission or commission, Modi should be patted on the back for refusing to embrace Yameen, even though the rest of the bureaucracy had begun to believe “there was no option”.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, trouble is brewing in paradise. Maithripala Sirisena, the man former president Chandrika Kumaratunga helped bring to power four years ago – with a little help from India – has suddenly dissolved parliament. The outgoing and sacked PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, the injured party, is going to court. Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom the Chinese have supported and is PM contender, was in Delhi recently. It’s not clear where and how the chips will fall.
Pakistan is the worst news story of all. Modi has sought to isolate Islamabad, but he failed to reckon with its key geostrategic location at the crossroads of Asia. Any resolution of the Afghan tangle has to take Pakistan into account. That is why Delhi last week sent two retired diplomats to Moscow to take part in the first public talks with the Taliban. It’s a good move, but Delhi is half-hearted as usual. The two Indian representatives sat in the same room as the Taliban, ate around the same table and did Salaam Aleikum to each other – but refused to say another word. Why? Because their brief was not to exceed their brief. Strictly ‘No Talking’.
Similarly, with Islamabad. India confirms a meeting with the Pakistan foreign minister, and then cancels it within 24 hours. Nobody knows why or what happened. Confusion abounds.
As for Nepal, Communist Party leader K.P. Oli was catapulted to the PM’s job on an anti-India vote. Delhi has more recently reached out to Kathmandu, swallowing its pride on China’s expansion into the Madhes, which it considers its own sphere of influence.
Bangladesh is less problematic because Sheikh Hasina, the democratically elected PM who has thrown her opponent into jail, ostensibly on corruption charges, is set to win the election in December. She knows she has India’s support, if only because Delhi is even less comfortable with her alternative, Khaleda Zia. On such black-and-white conditions are relationships built.
Bhutan has just held elections and there’s a new political party, the Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, in power. This was entirely unexpected. Some say that the influence of the deeply respected monarchs held sway. Whatever the reason, the tiny Himalayan kingdom has voted for democracy, just like the tiny Islamic republic in the Indian Ocean.
The thread that ties the region together should have been India – but it’s China, instead. Beijing has used its yuan to maximum effect, sending tourists as well as businessmen to build parliament buildings, cultural centres, bridges, highways and railroads across the region.
From Nepal to the Maldives, from Bangladesh to Afghanistan, China’s Xi Jinping is the new emperor in town. This has happened under Prime Minister Modi’s watch, certainly, but it is equally true that it has been a long time coming.
Instead of diplomacy, Delhi has dealt with its recalcitrant neighbourhood with anger. Instead of reaching out its hand, it has withdrawn its fist, threatening to punish when an embrace would have far greater and much more pleasant consequences. Modi’s “alpha-male” efforts in the neighbourhood have hardly gone down well.
If only he had read the reams of papers, the documents and the books on what has gone before. But the PM prefers bullet points made up in dramatic power-point presentations. India’s neighbourhood is far too complex to be divided into black and white.
Perhaps that’s why Delhi is forever struggling to catch up. A new chapter awaits, once the mother of all elections is concluded mid-2019.