Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Bar) & Advisory council member of GCTC
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts towards progressing India’s foreign policy have been transformational and virtually a blitzkrieg. However, the current five-nation trip in a matter of six days should be viewed as consolidation which is prudent. Afghanistan, Qatar, Switzerland, US and Mexico, all have relevance in different contexts and it is necessary to review how this consolidation phase is probably being played out and what its gains will be.
When Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani chose to alter former president Karzai’s favored approach towards India in 2014, India had the option of being vociferous and aggressive in its approach towards the new government to retain its influence.
However, it chose to follow a more conciliatory approach and wait it out.
True to its expectation the situation turned around in less than a year. It is then that the Prime Minister visited Afghanistan, promising to continue the old relationship and extended full soft power support with value assistance in the field of training of Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
In the post Mullah Mansour period when Afghanistan is once again in a tenuous state of security, the Afghan government of Ghani would be motivated to receive a high profile international personality. The event, is the inauguration of the Salma Dam, a project undertaken by the Government of India on Chist-e-Sharif river in Herat province of West Afghanistan at a cost of $300 million.
Interestingly, the equipment for this project was transported from India to the site through Bander Abbas port in Iran and then via 1200 KM of rail and road transportation network. In a way that signifies the worth of the PM’s other successful mission, Chahbahar port.
His visit to Afghanistan so early after the path breaking trilateral agreement on Chahbahar between India, Iran and Afghanistan is demonstrative of the consolidation underway. The inauguration of a major Indian assisted project provides the right optics in the emerging dynamics of the New Great Game which is so much to do with infrastructure.
The Prime Minister then goes on to Doha in Qatar, a country which in recent years has punched far above its weight in Middle East and in fact international politics. Energy rich, expanding infrastructure and urban construction Qatar has 7,20,000 Indians ranging from construction workers to banking professionals.
In 2012, they remitted $2.29 billion to India and the amount has gone up since. The 2022 FIFA world cup promises continued hectic construction activity and therefore jobs.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar is currently playing a pivotal role in international affairs — presiding over reconciliation talks between Afghanistan and Pakistan-supported Taliban; an active member of the US-led coalition against ISIS but also accused of financing the terror group.
The Sheikh visited India in March, 2015 and it is important that the Prime Minister is returning the call. Coming after visits to UAE and Saudi Arabia this visit should be observed as a continuum of engagement with the Gulf countries where 7.2 million Indians reside and work.
The Prime Minister’s programme interestingly has a visit to a workers camp; the symbolism must not be missed as the high rate of deaths of expatriate labour working on the world cup stadia has raised eyebrows.
It is learnt that almost a thousand Indians have died so far. Modi’s hip hop in the Middle East, straddling the Persian Gulf is a consolidating format which helps maintain equilibrium in India’s relationship with the Islamic world. It is always good to be in touch with an important Middle East player whose strategic weight is only increasing.
Switzerland is in many ways all about touching base with Europe’s intellectual capital. A longer visit would perhaps have delved into the larger aspects of international money laundering.
This visit is more about the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), something on which India has pinned its hopes for the future after the Indo-US Nuclear Deal lost momentum.
China, which earlier supported India’s membership, on May 19 announced its intent to oppose it at the Vienna meeting on June 9, 2016. China’s stance is based upon Pakistan’s instigation and follows the earlier pursued policy of membership of NSG only after signing of NPT. The visit is therefore more focused and tactical this time but will establish base for subsequent consolidation.
Modi’s fourth visit to the US in two years may be considered by some as overkill. However, this is where true consolidation actually sets in. The complexity of Indo-US relations demands that constant engagement at the highest levels must continue for clarification of minds and taking the work in progress to a higher level of understanding and consolidation.
Addressing the US Congress is an honour no doubt and it will give key players in US power circles an opportunity to hear directly from Modi’s vision Of India for the world in which both the countries consider themselves natural strategic partners.
It will help build trust with a legislature which is all important. The F-16 deal for Pakistan is on hold at the instance of the very same legislature.
Many times the pursuance of US foreign policy interests is contingent upon how the legislature perceives it. A chance to interact with members of the Senate and the House of Representatives will further clarify minds and re-generate interest in India as a valuable all weather friend.
It’s good that the Prime Minister will interact with some think tanks. He did not get a chance to do that the last few times.
American strategic thought offers variety of ideas and Modi is himself an ideas man who has learnt international strategic affairs rather quickly. It will contribute much towards mutual benefits to the think tanks to better understand India’s aspirations and how it intends to achieve the same.
Fresh from Afghanistan and the Middle East it is US interests there too which are at stake and updates are always welcome. Of course, the NSG entry issue will dominate discussions and the strategy to manoeuver around the China lobby.
The last port of call is Mexico where the Prime Minister touches base on June 8-9. He will have extensive talks with Mexican President Enrique Peieto on key bilateral issues including India’s membership in the NSG.
Mexico has a similar perception as China which revolves around the necessity to sign NPT before a ticket to the NSG. Four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are supporting India but yet there are other important countries such as Switzerland and Mexico which oppose it.
Mexico is not an unimportant country and potential for higher trade (from current levels of $6.5 billion) is existent. However, the warmth of ties will be decided by how much Modi can convince the Mexicans for their valuable vote on June 9, 2016.