With the conclusion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's five-nation tour on Friday, the strategic objectives of Indian diplomacy seem to be getting a clearer focus in contrast to the ambivalence of the past.
This seems to be the dominant view of Indian diplomats, who play important roles in defining the terms of engagement with foreign countries. Apart from looking at Modi’s visit from the prism of his roaring reception in US, the Indian government is attaching equal significance to his visits to Afghanistan-Qatar and Switzerland-Mexico.
The Afghanistan-Qatar visit was primarily aimed at reassuring the Islamic block of nations about India’s readiness to engage with critical countries. This assumes significance in view of the fact that Modi undertook his second visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate infrastructure projects built with Indian help – including Salma dam, one of India's major reconstruction works in Afghanistan.
Similarly, the significance of Qatar’s role in the Middle East can hardly be undermined. That the relationship assumed a distinct profile was evident by the expressed bonhomie between PM Modi and the Qatar’s royal family. In a meeting with a business group, some members euphemistically offered ‘blank cheques’ to invest in India.
Official sources in the government admit that though the Qatar-Afghanistan visit was intended to serve many strategic objectives – domestic and international – his Switzerland-Mexico engagement was focused on convincing two crucial members of the nuclear supplier group (NSG) of India’s credentials as a nuclear nation.
India has been facing stiff resistance from a small group of nations, particularly from China, on its entry into the elite NSG. Much of the resistance emanates from these nations’ reluctance to facilitate the entry of a country which is not a signatory to non-proliferation treaty (NPT). In India’s assessment, China has been deliberately using this pretext to advance Pakistan’s case for entry into the NSG.
In his five-nation tour, Modi seemed to have diplomatically convinced the international community about India’s credible credentials as nuclear power, and its track record on non-proliferation. Sources in the government say that India’s record on nuclear safety and non-proliferation was much appreciated in US, while the government chose not to broach the issue of Pakistan’s application for entry into the NSG.
Given Pakistan’s dubious record on proliferation and transfer of technology to North Korea, there is strong scepticism in US and Europe about allowing Pakistan into the elite club.
The Indian government, it seems, is not overtly optimistic about the possibility of China giving in to international pressure led by US to let India occupy a place in the NSG. Yet the government sources are downplaying China's role as they see a ray of hope of the possibility of a meeting between Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the side-lines of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting to be held on 23-24 June in Uzbekistan.
The biggest take away from the tour, however, is the unqualified commitment of US to set up nuclear reactors in India to fulfil green and clean energy requirements, and to allow liberal licensing in defence deals to help the government’s 'Make in India' programme.
Sources say that the fear of nuclear liability was adequately dispelled and that there are signs to suggest that the foreign firms and India’s private sector will invest heavily in nuclear power projects. At the same time, India’s credentials as a credible nuclear nation have already enabled it to trade in nuclear items following the removal of waivers by US, after clinching the Indo-US nuclear deal during last phase of UPA-1 government.
The government is particularly enthused about the “liberal licensing regime” unique to India as it would help India to acquire defence manufacturing in a big way, and create large-scale employment opportunities. It is in this context that India defined US as an “indispensable partner” to promote skill development, build smart cities and help build digital and eco-friendly infrastructure in the country.
In the diplomatic circle, Modi’s visit is thus being interpreted as one that has brought about radical change in terms of engagement. Apparently in the context of Afghanistan, where US was often sceptical of India’s initiatives in the troubled region, there are now talks of much more cooperation.
Similarly, it was for the first time that an Indian prime minister candidly expressed his opinion in a joint session of the US Congress about terrorism being "incubated" in a country (Pakistan) and appreciated the US administration for desisting to reward the culprits.
He also talked about delinking religion from terrorism and cautioned against making a distinction between a “good terrorist and a bad terrorist”. Official sources say that the plain-talking was much required in the current political scenario of US, which is passing through a phase of uncertainty.
In sum total, official sources view the tour as a success in bringing India’s strategic objectives a lot more clarity than the past. Though they are still keeping their fingers crossed on the issue of India’s entry into the NSG. At the same time, they feel that China’s obstacle is not as insurmountable as it is made out to be.