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Modi's foreign tours display
more spin and sizzle than substance

With 21 trips in two years to 39 countries, the Indian prime minister has set a blinding pace. Yet foreign policy has swung like pendulum, lacking any pragmatic roadmap.

New Delhi, June 2016

Too many junkets? Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping

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As Chairman of Parliament’s External Affairs Committee, I have always proudly articulated our tradition that political differences stop at the water’s edge – there isn’t a Congress foreign policy or a BJP foreign policy, only Indian foreign policy. Yet I can’t help feeling that there are aspects of the Modi Government’s foreign policy in the last two years that are not easy for many to swallow as India’s, rather than his.

As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) completes the second anniversary of its term in office, it is safe to conclude that we have at its helm a Prime Minister who serves as an energetic salesman abroad for the Government of India but one whose credibility finds itself increasingly under question. After all, how long can a salesman impress by the sheer force of oratory and cleverly designed international spectacles if the package he is selling is empty?

This is, of course, leaving aside the fact that the “achche din” that were promised to the people of India also remain completely out of sight. Lofty foreign policy pronouncements have helped divert attention from domestic concerns and preserved the image of Mr Modi’s India to a large extent, but even here a feeling of being let down has been mounting for some time. Even the most fervent sympathisers of the Prime Minister are beginning to tire of the photo-ops and the “breaking news” stories of Mr Modi’s tireless travels abroad, seemingly with little connection to the needs of the aam aadmi at home.

Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor

Like most Indians, I acknowledge the energy he has brought to his foreign travels – 21 trips in two years to 39 countries. (In fact the Prime Minister has made more addresses in parliaments abroad than to the Lok Sabha at home in his first two years in office.)

For a government driven by (and drawing political capital from) its lavishly funded publicity machine, this is becoming a problem. India, as I have said often, needs to strike a balance between its hard power and soft power, and it is not the country with the bigger army that wins but that which tells the better story—and at the moment, the story Mr Modi and his colleagues in government are pitching to the world looks less and less convincing with every passing month. If foreign policy were merely a question of making fine speeches, then the Prime Minister would score top marks. But substance must follow grandiloquent oratory and unfortunately for Mr Modi, he has very little substance to show for his efforts abroad, and only a shipload more of promises to add to the titanic stock already piled high at home.

Like most Indians, I acknowledge the energy he has brought to his foreign travels – 21 trips in two years to 39 countries. (In fact the Prime Minister has made more addresses in parliaments abroad than to the Lok Sabha at home in his first two years in office.) And I do think that getting the United Nations to adopt International Yoga Day was a winner, since it has meant people around the world following an Indian practice in a way that enhances our global image (though the manner in which the Government pursued the Guinness Book of World Records last year over the issue was, to put it mildly, unseemly).

That, alas, is the extent of the positive side of the ledger, where the PM’s efforts have borne tangible results. For the rest, the report card is decidedly mixed.

India’s foreign policy appears to many observers to be created impromptu on the hoof, as it were, in the course of the Prime Minister’s peripatetic travels. Key discussions which should have taken place in the preparation of these visits seem to follow the Prime Minister’s pronouncements, rather than precede and justify them. The announcements, usually of investments to come, have largely failed to materialize. And stated goals, such as those accompanying the impressive India-African Summit in New Delhi, do not seem to be accompanied by the investment of adequate resources to fulfil them, or co-ordination with various government agencies to achieve their announced goals. The Summit showcased this government’s tendency to see such occasions as events to be well-managed, rather than part of a strategy requiring meticulous implementation.

Indeed, the External Affairs Ministry does not appear to be involved in much serious follow-up work to the PM’s tours, so that they remain one-off events rather than part of a planned grand design for Indian foreign policy. Fundamental decisions are taken in the PMO, if not by the Prime Minister himself, along with his National Security Adviser. And while the External Affairs Minister is herself a respected and widely-liked politician, her role in the formulation of foreign policy appears to be so tightly circumscribed that diplomats in Delhi have taken to referring to her, with a smile, as the Minister for Consular Affairs.

Where has Mr Modi’s India been found wanting in the process?

Let us begin with the neighbourhood, which is where any government must act with the greatest caution and sensitivity to balance our national interests with regional circumstances beyond our control. Since Mr Modi’s swearing in—a pageant of sorts that saw the premiers of Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan in attendance and which was lauded as the grand inauguration of a new chapter in our international relations—India’s ties with Pakistan have witnessed more ups and downs than a child’s yo-yo. The Prime Minister—a man who systematically obstructed the UPA Government’s peacemaking efforts with Pakistan and whose campaign speeches thrived on demonising that country — had excoriated the Congress for “serving chicken biriyani” to a Pakistani visitor. Now he was exchanging shawls and saris with his Islamabad counterpart, along with sentimental letters to each other’s mothers. (I mischievously tweeted my hope that chicken biriyani would be on Modi’s dinner menu for his Pakistani guest: it wasn’t.)

India-Pakistan relations have since swung back and forth, as though they are determined more by the unpredictable moods of our leadership than on a coherent foreign policy and vision for peace, let alone a practical roadmap

By inviting Nawaz Sharif to Delhi when he took office, Mr Modi was believed to have turned a historic page, and opened a new era of bilateral relations. But less than two months had passed before both countries were exchanging artillery fire across the still-sensitive border. Talks between our respective foreign secretaries were called off when the Pakistanis proposed meeting Indian Kashmiri separatist leaders on their proposed visit—something our visitors had always done and to which earlier governments had responded with confident official indifference. In November of the same year, at the SAARC summit in Nepal, Mr Modi pointedly stared at a brochure to ignore his Pakistani counterpart as he walked past, though it was later revealed that the two leaders had met privately in a hotel suite belonging to an Indian businessman. The pattern repeated itself when late last year Mr Modi made an impromptu visit to Lahore to attend a celebration at Mr Sharif’s home; a week later relations turned frosty again after seven Indians were killed by Pakistani militants at the Pathankot Air Force Base.

India-Pakistan relations have since swung back and forth, as though they are determined more by the unpredictable moods of our leadership than on a coherent foreign policy and vision for peace, let alone a practical roadmap. One day the Government declares its “red lines” and twice calls off talks with Pakistan because its representatives met with the Kashmiri-separatist Hurriyat; the next day the red lines don’t matter. One day the ruling party avers that talks and terror don’t go together and that Pakistan cannot be rewarded with a visit till it makes progress on punishing the perpetrators of 26/11; the next day the PM is winging impulsively to Lahore, sending India’s surprised High Commissioner scurrying (too late) to the airport to receive his boss. This is foreign policy by whim, not by design.

So too with Nepal – where New Delhi’s de facto blockade choked the nation’s economy, cut off its oil supplies, created genuine hardship and provoked a groundswell of hostility among ordinary Nepalis. This, and the behaviour that accompanied the episode, was a blunder of such Himalayan proportions that the only country on earth whose relationship with us has been fraternal enough for us to maintain open borders with it, now mutters about turning towards China instead.

One astute observer told me privately that “PMO took its eyes off the ball”. But when decision-making has been so centralized in the Modi regime that every ministry has to send its important files to the PMO for clearance, how many balls can Mr Modi and his beleaguered minions keep their eyes on?

India’s mess in Nepal adds to the growing sense of disquiet amongst students of Indian foreign policy about the Modi government’s management of relations on the subcontinent. A combination of arrogance and ineptitude is all-too-often visible where subtlety and pro-active diplomacy could have delivered the desired results. A raid into Myanmar in hot pursuit of terrorist sanctuaries had six precedents under the UPA, but each had been shrouded in a discreet silence; the Modi government chose to announce their one raid with such bellicose rhetoric that it embarrassed Myanmar, the violation of whose sovereignty New Delhi was trumpeting. Relations with three of our neighbours – Pakistan, the Maldives and now Nepal – are worse than they have ever been. If we don’t soon embark on a serious course correction, the only question will be who we are going to alienate next.

Modi and the BJP had constantly berated the government for being unable to do anything about frequent Chinese incursions... Today, Mr Modi has not only had effusive meetings with both the Chinese President and Foreign Minister, but is inviting China to help modernize the Indian railways

There have been successes, but these have almost entirely been in areas where Mr Modi and his party chose to follow the path already laid by successive previous governments without upsetting the delicate balance upon which this balance rested. One of the Prime Minister’s greatest achievements is that he has reversed the BJP’s formal opposition in Parliament to the Indo-US Nuclear Deal and to the seminal land boundary agreement with Bangladesh—both of which were UPA initiatives and both of which were wise policy reversals by the NDA Government of the positions the BJP had taken in opposition.

In the election campaign, Modi had breathed fire and brimstone about Bangladesh, accusing it of sending millions of illegal immigrants into India and promising that the moment he won the election, they would all have to “pack their bags” and leave India for home. Bangladeshi officials had publicly and privately expressed their disquiet that any attempt to do this could be deeply destabilizing for their politically fragile state. Within weeks of his victory, however, Modi’s Foreign Minister was all smiles on her first official visit abroad – to Bangladesh. Illegal immigration wasn’t even mentioned in Dhaka. (However, the victorious BJP government in Assam this week has unwisely reopened the issue, and disquiet is mounting in our friendly neighbour.)

The Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh concluded by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which Indian diplomats had considered vital to removing bilateral irritants, had never been implemented because UPA couldn’t win the BJP’s support in Parliament to ratify the territorial swaps required. But now the Modi Government is the biggest votary of the Land Boundary Agreement, which the Opposition co-operated fully in ratifying.

The BJP had been virulently critical of the Indo-US nuclear deal, Manmohan Singh’s signature foreign policy triumph. They had even supported a no-confidence motion against the UPA government on the issue of the deal. Yet, in a quiet and under-reported move, the Modi government wisely ratified the India-specific Additional Protocol, a UPA undertaking to grant greater access to India’s civilian nuclear sitesto the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

In the lead-up to and during his election campaign, Modi and the BJP had constantly berated the government of India for being unable to do anything about frequent Chinese incursions across the disputed frontier. Today, the same Mr Modi has not only had effusive meetings with both the Chinese President and Foreign Minister, but is inviting China to help modernize the Indian railways and has removed government restrictions on Chinese investment in sensitive sectors like ports and telecoms. As to the border incursions, the BJP government echoes the very line it had denounced when the Congress government uttered it – that since the two countries have differing perceptions of where the border lies, each patrols in areas the other considers to be theirs. What was excoriated by Modi as pusillanimity and appeasement in the Congress has become wisdom and statesmanship in the BJP.

Where you stand on foreign policy, in other words, depends on where you sit. Your stand is different when you’re sitting in South Block and not in Gandhinagar.

The cerebral American politician, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, once memorably observed that you campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. Hard reality, he suggested, replaces the flights of policy fantasy that afflict those without power.

Welcome to the foreign policy world of Narendra Modi.


Column reprinted with the kind permission of the Swarajya magazine website where it was first published.

Prolific author, Indian member of parliament from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala (re-elected for a fourth successive term in June 2024), and former Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor has also served as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, and as a senior advisor to the UN Secretary-General. He is the author, most recently, of Ambedkar: A Life (Aleph Book Company, 2022). His website is

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M Venu (1 August, 2016) – USA
It is true there have been a lot of foreign tours. This is perhaps to be expected of a man once treated as a global pariah after the Gujarat violence and denied a US visa. Modi is back. India needs a strong voice on the foreign stage. And yes, India needs a lot of attention at home. Land reform is just one overdue issue.
Anu Prasad (1 August, 2016) – India
A well written article as always by Dr Shashi Tharoor but perhaps overlooking the progress in India's steps towards joining the nuclear club and standing on parity with others after decades of isolation.

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