A good part of India’s population has only known a benign external environment — with the United States, Europe, the Middle East, most of East Asia and Australia being favourably disposed towards India. Other than China and Pakistan, few countries have and create problems for us. Even with respect to these two countries, most of the world’s countries are inclined towards India’s position. Anyone who remembers India’s foreign relations in the 1970s, 1980s and the early 1990s, will find this state of affairs remarkable. We have never had it so good.
Unfortunately, some of it is unravelling and a lot of it is at risk. Due to a combination of the unprecedented economic slowdown and the policies pursued by the Narendra Modi government, India’s foreign relations in the coming years are likely to worsen.
Endangering ties with ‘best friend’
An immediate casualty in the current controversy over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the impending National Register of Citizens (NRC) is the bilateral relationship with Bangladesh, one of India’s most important and well-disposed neighbours. For now, Dhaka has ignored the demonisation of its citizens by Indian political leaders and is sticking to the official line that these are India’s “internal affairs”, but it’s a matter of time before this position changes. Bangladesh’s foreign and home ministers have called off their visits to India and the country’s outgoing ambassador pointedly said that Bangladeshis “would rather swim in the ocean and reach Italy instead of coming to India.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been openly pro-India in word and deed since coming to power a decade ago, is bound to feel pressure from Bangladesh’s domestic politics to take a hard line. If she doesn’t, she might even lose power. Her political adversaries will only be too happy to play up the India bogey and walk into Beijing’s warm embrace. Even if such an extreme outcome does not come about, Bangladesh might well withhold security cooperation at a time when the Modi government has unsettled almost all eight northeastern states. All this without even considering the scenario where the Indian government decides to repatriate large numbers of people it considers “illegal immigrants”.
Worse, undermining Sheikh Hasina politically will make every regional political leader wary of going out on a limb for India. It’s not that there are large numbers of politicians in Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives who advocate pro-India positions. Even the few who do are likely to be more cautious in the future. On the other hand, the region’s pro-China politicians know that Beijing has their backs covered.
On a wobbly tripod in US, Europe
India’s engagement with the United States and Europe has been driven by a tripod shared values, economic prospects and geopolitical considerations. In other words, a shared commitment to liberal democracy, India’s growing economy and its potential to act as a counter-weight to China makes New Delhi an attractive partner. It would be bad enough if one of the three legs became wobbly, but the relationship risks fraying if all three came apart.
The US administration may well ignore pressures from Congress and civil society groups on issues such as Kashmir, the CAA and the NRC if it sees New Delhi as a necessary economic partner prepared to stand up to Beijing. Yet, if the slowdown is prolonged and New Delhi dials back on free trade, then official attitudes in Washington can change quickly. Engaging even the best lobbyists won’t help then. Far more important is for the Modi government to get the tripod back into balance.
In contrast, ASEAN countries are mostly concerned about India’s economic trajectory, and to some extent on New Delhi being capable and willing to balance Beijing’s influence in their politics. Even without accounting for the current economic slowdown, India’s decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) means further economic engagement with East Asia is going to be harder. As I have written elsewhere, “It is presumptuous to expect countries and companies to be sympathetic to India’s political interests if they do not see an economic upside. Sheer momentum will allow Indian foreign policy to tide over a mild, short slowdown. If, however, we go into a deep, prolonged slump, we should expect a tough time in international relations.”
Control the narrative
If the economic dimension becomes weaker, countries like Malaysia will find it less costly to raise Kashmir and NRC issues on various platforms. They are not paragons of liberal democratic virtue — and they don’t have to be. All they need is the power to make things difficult for us India and the readiness to use it.
As far as the Middle East is concerned, Prime Minister Modi’s personal relationship with Crown Princes Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi have helped India manage relations with the Arab states so far. This is likely to continue even if public opinion in those countries becomes less favourably disposed towards India.
All of this adds up to Indian diplomacy having to spend a lot of time, resources and political capital defending domestic policies. Negative headlines have already started appearing in foreign media on a regular basis. Once this narrative takes hold, foreign capitals will become less warm to India’s interests. That is why restabilising the tripod is necessary.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.