Gesturing Toward Status Quo

Judging from the swearing-in Diplomacy that enhanced the image of Modi to a non-traditional level, chances are high that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance government is unlikely to change the basic orientation in foreign policy. Modi discussed regional issues with Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa without raising the issue of genocide of minority Tamil people in the northern killing fields of island republic, much to the dismay of BJP’s one minor ally in Tamil Nadu. Aggressive postures that they showed during electioneering and during the opposition days seem to be mellowing as the compulsions of real politic demand a low-key stance. The same is true of Bangladeshi infiltrators. The banias of Gujarat and Rajasthan who are Modi’s cheerleaders cannot jeopardise their business interests in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as well by harping on unpleasant issues. For Dhaka what gets priority is some contentious issues, like the Teesta agreement and boundary dispute while the question of illegal infiltration does not exist on their agenda. It has been there for long and it will be there for years to come, Modi or no Modi. The Awami League government had worked with five different governments of India from 1996-2001 and 2009-2014 in cordial and accommodating atmosphere. In truth after China, Bangladesh was prompt enough to send congratulations to Modi on the resounding victory of his BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the 16th Parliamentary Elections. In all likelihood the issue of infiltration will soon be sidelined, notwithstanding BJP’s hawkish utterances during electioneering.

As for special parley with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif there was nothing special. It was a kind of business as usual diplomacy without any goal to reach. They discussed in their 50-minute meeting 26/11 Mumbai terror attack without giving the world an explanation. In fact they discussed terrorism, not cross-border terrorism. Expressing concerns over growing terror and violence in general in the region is one thing but to talk about country-specific terror originating from across the border is quite another.

No doubt the idea of SAARC (South Asian Area Regional Cooperation) got some relevance because of presence of so many South Asian heads of government and state at the swearing-in ceremony but why SAARC has been the weakest regional grouping ever since its inception decades ago deserves fresh look. SAARC has so far contributed little in normalising and improving multilateral relations among the member countries and removing age-old mistrust and bitter legacy left by history. In the end they all depend on bilateral mechanism in the fields of trade and commerce and cultural exchanges, defeating the very purpose of multi-lateralism that SAARC stood for.

Those who are speculating about the future of India-China relations have nothing to worry about because in diplomacy the Chinese know better than their Indian counterparts as to how to score points. China itself is not worried. Nor does it see any change in India-China bilateral arrangements despite a right-wing party otherwise described as a ‘hard nationalist’, coming to power in New Delhi. For one thing there are fewer political alternatives on the BJP than on the Indian National Congress when handling bilateral relations with China. They raise the bogey of ‘China threat’ when they are in opposition. But they change the China game after assuming power. It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee as India’s Prime Minister more than a decade ago officially acknowledged Tibet as an inalienable part of China for the first time. Modi is not going to reverse his government’s policy on Tibet, notwithstanding the border stand off in some sections in the himalayan wilderness.

Incidentally 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the announcement of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence or Panchasheel. The Five Principles were first mooted by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai at a meeting with the Indian delegation for negotiations on bilateral relations in China’s Tibet region in December 1953. In June 1954 Zhou Enlai visited India and Burma, now known as Myanmar. In their joint communique India, China and Burma affirmed Panchasheel, as guiding principles for India-China and Burma-China relations. In all fairness it was a victory of Zhou Enlai’s diplomacy as the three nations also jointly proposed that the five principles should be established as norms governing international relations in general. They are going to mark the 60th anniversary of Panchasheel on June 28. Modi can at best continue the tradition that his predecessors had followed.

Prior to Modi no Indian head could do much other than agreeing not to disagree with the Chinese perception of border dispute. For the BJP it was easy to agitate over the disputed boundary while in opposition but it would be equally difficult to talk tough now. The two countries reached the Agreement on the political parameters and guiding principles for the settlement of the India-China boundary question to the satisfaction of both sides. Modi cannot go beyond the set pattern in India-China diplomacy—he can at best maintain the status quo.

Not quite unexpectedly China seemed to be the first country to announce that it was ready to work with the new Indian government to seize the opportunity and push their strategic and cooperative partnership to a new height. At the time of writing Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi was preparing to visit India to focus on pushing bilateral ties further. In diplomacy Chinese leaders always marvel. It doesn’t matter who runs the administration in New Delhi—China’s gesture toward cooperation is aimed at getting things done in the field.

Yesterday India was no match for China. And today when China is moving forward with its globe-conquering market engine India does hardly count. China ranks second in terms of economy while India is at the 10th position.

Vol. 46, No. 49, Jun 15 - 21, 2014