By Reeta Tremblay
US President Barack Obama as the chief guest at the Indian Republic day celebrations signals a new chapter in the Indo-US relations, reversing the chill experienced after the (Indian diplomat Devyani) Khobragade event. The Republic day visit comes on the heels of an extremely successful visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s to the US.
With a massive electoral mandate in hand in May 2014, Modi has been nothing but gracious in setting aside the US denial of visa controversy and has been proactive and professional in moving forward bilateral relations between the two countries. From the US side, President Obama and other American leaders have positively engaged the new BJP government and have sent clear signals of restarting the clock.
In the first 100 days of the new Indian government, Obama sent three of his top cabinet ministers – John Kerry (Secretary of State), Chuck Hagel (Defense Secretary) and Penny Pritzker (Commerce Secretary) – to India. The annual India-US Strategic Dialogue was held in New Delhi instead of Washington as a goodwill gesture for the new government. There has been a new and a positive vibe about Indo- US relations, both in New Delhi and Washington.
It is the first time the US President has been invited. The invitation to chief guests – heads of other countries – is generally extended keeping in the forefront India’s strategic, diplomatic, economic priorities and global geopolitical environment.
On the surface, this invitation signifies a commitment on the part of both India and the US to work towards strengthening their strategic partnership, strengthening their economic and political ties.
However, at a deeper level, this is illustrative of a strategic dynamic foreign policy agenda clearly being articulated by Prime Minister Modi and his team. Since his swearing in, Prime Minister Modi has been charting an assertive dynamic approach of creating strategic and cooperative partnership, both in its own neighborhood and with the global powers such as the US, Australia, Russia, Japan, EU, and China.
Consciously working through a pragmatic approach rather than an ideological one where domestic economic interests (reviving flagging growth and creating jobs) as well as protection of India’s territorial integrity are the Modi government’s overriding priorities, Modi’s foreign policy aims towards building close partnerships with major powers. This would allow India to pursue multi-level alignments and a variety of interests in diverse settings with diverse powers.
Through the usage of ‘Smart Power’ (a combination of soft and hard power), Modi expects India to play a substantive role as a global power through its leadership in the South Asian region. Foreign policy environment has radically shifted under Modi’s leadership, from a feeble foreign policy framework to a pro-active, conscious and deliberate articulation of a new strategy and mode of action.
In this new scenario, during the past seven months, the Modi government’s foreign policy initiatives can be viewed as two-pronged: simultaneous pursuance of India’s domestic economic and strategic security interests. No doubt, this has resulted in a wide range of initiatives, cooperation for all countries in the SAARC region, economic partnership with China and Japan, Act East Policy (expanding on the Look East Policy), Look East – Link West, and a proactive pursuance of high diplomacy through foreign visits.
The success of his foreign trips in the US, Japan and Australia were also indicative of Modi’s extremely innovative strategy to use foreign policy to drive his domestic agenda: Swatcch Bharat, Make in India, Development of Smart Cities and bringing in increased inflows of foreign direct investment in India. In addition, he has been carefully working on developing the ‘India brand’ globally – an image of a confident, strong India which can look critically at itself but at the same time is confident of its own advantages – demographic, democracy and demand – to the global market and proud of its accomplishments. Modi has reintroduced a sense of pride to the Indian community abroad, who, he hopes, will come and invest in India’s economic growth.
Meanwhile, security concerns have been kept in the forefront by the Modi government: elimination of terrorism, particularly pushing for a hard core policy of every nation not to allow its territory to be used for any terrorism purpose; protection of its own borders with China and Pakistan; and checking the ever increasing strategic and economic influence of China in India’s own backyard, the Indian Ocean, and in the Pacific.
Within this new strategic foreign policy framework, enhancing its relations with the US – the longstanding democracy, economic and military power with a strong Indian diaspora base is, thus, both natural and significant. Not only is this relationship vital for fulfilling Modi’s agenda to build a strong and inclusive Indian economy, it is also crucial for building geo-political stability in the South Asian and the Pacific regions, particularly countering China’s assertiveness in the Pacific region.
China has been actively working on its plan to build the Maritime Silk Road in the Pacific region and a Maritime Trade link with the West. Both countries are cognizant of as well as concerned with China’s ambitious goal of dominating Asia and in that process excluding both the US and India from the region. They also share their concern about terrorism and the urgency with which Pakistan must work towards eliminating terrorism and all activities of the terrorist groups aimed at neighboring nations. With the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, India is concerned with the potential for increased foreign militant violence in different parts of India.
Reeta Tremblay is Professor of Political Science, University of Victoria.
This story originally appeared on The Indian Diaspora.