Modi must seek engagement

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 August, 2014, 2:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 August, 2014, 8:53am

India needs good relations with its neighbours, particularly China and Pakistan, if economic and diplomatic goals are to be attained. It can only accomplish this through sustained, face-to-face, talks. Yet Prime Minister Nerendra Modi has shown a disregard for this most basic element of building ties with Pakistan, by cancelling a meeting of the nations' foreign ministers due to a minor breach of terms. Further dialogue will now be more difficult, raising questions about the nature and direction of India's foreign policy.

Modi's aura as a leader who seemed capable of reviving the economy, creating jobs and getting inflation in check, took him and his Bharatiya Janata Party to a landslide election win in May. He has since made clear that the economy and development take priority and external affairs will remain little changed. With regional stability the aim of successive Indian governments, there is a recognition that hostility with China and Pakistan will harm markets and, consequently, growth. Ending decades of mistrust through strengthening trade and investment with neighbours, while resolving decades-old border disputes, is central to that objective.

India got off on the right foot with China. Modi told visiting Premier Li Keqiang in May that Sino-Indian relations were a priority, a sentiment echoed by President Xi Jinping when he met the Indian leader at the recent BRICS summit in Brazil. Xi is expected to make his maiden trip to India next month. But ties with Pakistan have not gone so smoothly: Although Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was at Modi's swearing-in ceremony, hopes that animosity from three wars over the contested state of Kashmir could be laid to rest have been dealt a blow with the calling off of the talks.

The bilateral discussions would have laid the groundwork for possible talks between Modi and Sharif at the UN General Assembly in New York next month. But India had set a new rule that negotiations would be affected should Pakistani officials meet Kashmiri separatists; it made good with its threat when Pakistan's high commissioner to New Delhi met Shabbir Ahmad Shah, a pro-independence leader.

Modi's action has called into question his commitment. Sharif's shaky domestic political standing and elections in Kashmir later this year may have been a reason, but so, too, could have been the Indian leader's nationalist tendencies. By adopting an unwavering position, he has put a cloud of uncertainty over his country's foreign policy.