The ‘surprise’ visit by Narendra Modi to Pakistan this week has led to a variety of responses ranging from perplexed media outlets and pundits, to angry ‘Congress Party’ officials. After visiting the new Indian-built Kabul Parliamentary complex, which has been heralded as a sign of increasing bilateral cooperation between Indian and Afghanistan governments on issues such as terrorism. The detour to Pakistan, announced by Prime Minister Modi on twitter, has led to suggestions that a potential thawing in relations is now back on the table. While representatives for the opposition ‘Congress Party’ label the visit as ‘ridiculous’, the trip actually represents an attempt by Prime Minister Modi to hide internal political and policy problems.
The election of Prime Minister Modi signalled a desire on behalf of Indian voters to find a new way to reinvigorate the Indian economy. Modi’s electoral economic platform weighed heavily on the acceptance of policy reforms that aim to mimic the China model. These reforms have sought to focus on economic reforms to increase foreign direct investment (FDI); while also seeking a renewed political focus on the manufacturing potential India could offer foreign states. However while Prime Minister Modi can point to some achievements in the economic realm, the real reforms that would be needed to achieve such goals have been woefully slow. Furthermore the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) has been increasingly defensive in its attempts to work with parliamentary rivals, which has ultimately brought the political system to a halt. This economic reform stagnation has led to significant blowback on the BJP as elections held for the Delhi and Bihar assembly’s in early 2015 saw significant swings away from the BJP. The growing internal political issues faced by Prime Minister Modi seems to be fostering a growing desire to distract voters’ attention away from economic issues onto issues surrounding Indian foreign policy. Prime Minister Modi must learn from one of its regional allies, Australia, that trying to deflect or distract attention from internal political problems does not have a good outcome.
The abruptness of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Pakistan and further clarification from Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval; that the visit did not indicate a “sudden shift” in relations, does suggest this was more of a stunt than a real foreign policy shift. The issue for Prime Minister Modi is that by undertaking this path, as former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott did, can lead to serious damage of political credibility on multiple fronts. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott shifted away from economic reform to a strong focus on foreign policy. However this was not the ‘political elixir’ he hoped it would be with the Australian public. In fact the mounting economic failures under an Abbott government were exacerbated by a range of foreign policy gaffes that not only sealed his political fate but also shook relations with close neighbours like Indonesia. If Prime Minister Modi follows the same pathway, any chance of reinvigorating Indian-Pakistan bilateral relations will be dead on arrival. Modi and the BJP must examine the political failures of regional allies and take these mistakes on board if real change is the desired outcome.
One must then ask if there can be any positives for Prime Minister Modi to take out of the Pakistan trip. The answer to this is a resounding yes. The two hour long meeting between both leaders reopened discussions on Kashmir after months of frozen and increasingly hostile bilateral relations. This moment must be seized upon. Whether it requires Prime Minister Modi to make increasingly frequent diplomatic trips to Pakistan, finding common ground on Afghanistan terrorism problems or actually seeking to openly change the foreign policy position of India in regards to Pakistan, this moment cannot just be left to wane. The thawing of the ice must be maintained. Quick political stunts to resolve internal political problems will not produce lasting political success. Real commitment towards a new stabilising foreign policy and a reinvigorated internal economic approach that seeks to work with oppositional forces will actually produce lasting outcomes internally and externally. These should be Prime Minister Modi’s goals for 2016.
Charles Bryant recent Master of International Affairs graduate from the Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Murdoch University.
Image Credit: Narendra Modi (cropped and edited) (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)