By the middle of the next decade, we should become a $5 trillion economy.
The Narendra Modi 2.0 government is off to a flying start. In 2014, Mr Modi was new to New Delhi and naturally needed time to get a handle on court intrigues, shake the bureaucracy out of the UPA-induced slumber and assemble a team of choice. Gradually, the imprint of Mr Modi’s vision became visible at home and abroad. He unveiled a series of domestic initiatives like Swachchh Bharat, Jan Dhan, Ujjwala, Ayushman, Mudra, demonetisation, Make in India and GST that were bold and transformative. All of them, barring the demonetisation and Make in India, proved successful.
The Prime Minister demonstrated a natural flair for foreign affairs, with his spontaneity, confidence, ingenuity and abundant energy. Soon he counted leaders from the East to West — Shinzo Abe of Japan to Barack Obama of the United States — as friends. All the same, he accorded primacy to India’s relations with its immediate and extended neighbourhood. For the first time, all Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) leaders were invited to the swearing-in ceremony in May 2014.
In the just-concluded presidential-style general election, the electorate has given a resounding and bigger mandate to Mr Modi, thereby endorsing his policies and providing him the political space to think and act out of the box. This has had a real-time impact. Dr S. Jaishankar, a former foreign secretary, has been inducted into the Cabinet as the new external affairs minister. It is perhaps the first time in Indian history that such a coveted position has gone to a former civil servant purely on merit.
By the middle of the next decade, we should become a $5 trillion economy. We aspire to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers Group as well as reap the benefits of the FourthIndustrial Revolution. A peaceful enabling environment, domestic and external, is a pre-requisite for attaining these national goals.
The biggest external challenge remains the reprehensible terrorist acts perpetrated against India, by Pakistan’s Deep State — comprising of the armed forces, jihadis and the Inter-Services Intelligence. However, it is also a fact that in the recent period the comity of nations, having seen through Pakistani perfidy, is beginning to speak out in unison; the Indian response is getting more muscular and the Pakistani economy is in a freefall. Nevertheless, this challenge is not likely to dissipate soon, making it imperative for India to persist with its efforts to consolidate international pressure on Pakistan and choke its avenues of terror funding. It is unlikely, therefore, that India would accede to Islamabad’s entreaties for holding talks, which have proven futile in the past, till it takes meaningful and irreversible steps against the jihadis.
China, with which we share a 4,000-km-long undelineated border, resulting in hundreds of incursions annually and occasional standoffs, presents a much bigger long-term challenge. The Chinese geostrategic ambitions have soared in step with its burgeoning economic muscle and military might. Beijing is indulging in a creeping expansionism all along its sprawling neighbourhood, besides using Pakistan for proxy warfare against India. In brief, it is challenging the established international order and as per President Xi Jinping ready to fight “the bloody battle” to regain its rightful place in the world.
This is no hollow threat. China is quite capable of using force upfront, to secure its objectives, unlike most nations, including India, which do so as a last resort. The danger of conflict was averted during the Doklam standoff in June-August 2017. The two sides managed to defuse tensions with the informal summit at Wuhan in April 2018. Mr Modi and President Xi are likely to meet twice during this month at Bishkek (SCO summit) and Osaka (G-20 summit). To sustain the Wuhan-spirit, an early followup event in India is quite likely.
By inviting the Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) leaders as the guests of honour for his second term swearing-in ceremony on May 30, the Prime Minister has unequivocally reiterated India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy. Bimstec bridges the Saarc and Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) regions, which are vital to India’s strategic, economic, security and cultural interests. India’s “Look East Policy” was elevated to “Act East Policy” in 2014 itself. In January 2018, all 10 Asean leaders were invited as chief guests at India’s Republic Day celebrations.
With the expanding Chinese footprint in both regions — perceived as a mixed blessing — its desire for even closer collaboration with India is quite evident. India is seen as a rising and benign power (except by Pakistan). India, along with the United States, Japan and Australia strongly support the centrality and leadership of Asean, in crafting suitable mechanisms of regional architecture for economic and security partnership. Meanwhile, along with greater trade and investment cooperation, China is also busy expanding its military presence in the Indo-Pacific region and sowing dissension within Asean, for example, by using its money power to persuade Cambodia and Laos to break ranks with the consensus-driven Asean.
There cannot be a more opportune time for India to intensify its engagement with Asean, which is anchored on 3Cs — Connectivity, Commerce and Culture. We would be well advised to expeditiously complete the committed connectivity projects — like the India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport initiative — before announcing new ones. Similarly, every effort needs to be exerted in concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement among the 10 Asean and six of its Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partner nations, including India. We appear to be the last holdout and could be excluded unless we get our act together.
The vigorous personal outreach to the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand and Israel on the other, during the last five years by Prime Minister Modi, has yielded good results and would certainly be sustained. And finally, Japan, which has emerged arguably as India’s most important development and strategic partner in Asia. The tradition of annual summits and a series of high-level dialogue mechanisms have enabled regular stock-taking and steady broadening the canvas of cooperation. This momentum is likely to be sustained.
India has entered a phase of unprecedented opportunities and challenges, which would severely test its diplomatic dexterity. Fortunately, blessed with a decisive and visionary leadership, the nation is ready, as never before.
The writer is a foreign affairs analyst and a former Indian ambassador to South Korea and high commissioner to Canada