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Saturday, September 17, 2016

PM’s Independence Day Speech: A New Beginning in India’s Foreign Policy


Standing under the national flag on the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi with one end of his colorful turban gently blowing in the morning breeze, Prime Minister Modi, delivering his speech on the 70th Independence Day, stressed more on his government’s ambition to offer the nation a kind of government that takes up “responsibility and accountability as the roots” of its governance—an encouraging shift from the usual gloating about the schemes launched by the government in power.   

The real surprise was however to come towards the end of his speech: shifting from the known consistent stand of Indian leadership for once, he opened a new front against Pakistan when he said: “What kind of life is this, inspired by terrorism? What kind of government setup is it that is inspired by terrorism? ... The world will know about it… Today I want to specially honor and thank some people from the ramparts of Red Fort. For the past few days, the people of Balochistan, the people of Gilgit, the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the way their citizens have heartily thanked me, the way they have acknowledged me …  the people I have not met ever, but people settled at far across acknowledge the Prime Minister of India, they honor him, so it is an honor of my 125 crore countrymen … and that is why … I want to heartily thank the people of Balochistan, the people of Gilgit, the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for having an expression of thankfulness.”

Now the big question is: Is this reference of Prime Minister to Pakistan’s human rights abuses in its Balochistan province and as well as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir an off-the-cuff remark or a deliberate and conscious shift in India’s known policy of refraining from commenting on the internal affairs of another country. But before attempting an answer to this question, it may be more appropriate to first trace what might have prompted the Prime Minister to overtly refer to the region of Balochistan.

This reference to Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir has of course come after a series of provocations from Pakistan over Kashmir. Abandoning all diplomatic niceties, it attempted to seek international intervention in Kashmir by: one, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself wrote to UN organizations about the unrest in Kashmir; two, it decreed a ‘black day’ across Pakistan to honor slain Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani;  and three, it gave a free hand to terrorist leaders like Hafiz Saeed to hold protest rallies against India. Over it, when Rajnath Singh, India’s Home Minister, visited Pakistan for SAARC meet, he was greeted with protests. Pakistan High Commissioner to India had worsened the position further by dedicating Pakistan’s Independence Day to fight ‘jihad in Kashmir’. 

Looking at these provocations, one gets tempted to construe that Prime Minister’s comment on Balochistan is a well-determined policy shift under which it appears that India is rebooting itself with a policy of active offense-defense against the challenges thrown by the unrelenting adversarial Pakistan. This bold assertion that has been so carefully articulated from Red Fort cannot be treated as a knee-jerk reaction.  It indeed signals that India would become more aggressive in asserting its claims to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by highlighting Pakistan’s gross violations of human rights of the inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan. 

In the process, Modi’s reference also sends a signal to China which, as a part of its ambitious plans to become a great regional power, is investing around $45 bn in the Gilgit-Baltistan region for establishing a viable link between its Xinjiang and Gwadar port on the shores of Arabian sea under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project across the Karakoram Pass. Analysts observe that the more vocal India becomes over these issues, the more would be the setback to investor confidence, for in an already volatile region like South Asia, mere threats are good enough to cause economic consequences. And the unease already caused in China is palpable from what a Chinese scholar, Hu Shisheng, said: “It signals a watershed moment in India’s policy towards Pakistan in the future” and could be ‘disastrous’ for relations between China and India.   

Taking forward the move, Prime Minister Modi referred to terrorism emerging from Pakistan at G 20 meeting by saying, "Indeed one single nation in South Asia is spreading these agents of terror in countries of our region" and "we expect the international community to speak and act in unity, and to respond with urgency to fight this menace." Indeed, he even called for 'isolating' such countries. Immediately following this, he  made a similar reference again at 14th ASEAN-India summit.    

That said, it must also be appreciated that this newfound assertion might “exacerbate the paranoia that had characterized Pakistan’s attitude towards India.” One may however argue that India is well within its democratic standards when it raised the human rights issue, but these gambits are necessarily to be orchestrated with due deliberation and calibration. Importantly, such moves must simultaneously be backed by an effective persuasion of an active economic development agenda so that people’s aspirations are kept alive.

In all this exercise, India must keep its doors open for dialog with Pakistan. Importantly, it must also factor China’s interests in all its calculations while entertaining any dialog with Pakistan. To conclude, though nothing much can be expected out of the present reference of Prime Minister, one thing is certain: this assertion for safeguarding India’s national interests is a welcome development and encouragingly, the opposition party too appears to appreciate this phenomenon.
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