By Aroonim Bhuyan
NEW DELHI– A dramatic stopover in Lahore by the Indian prime minister on his way home from Afghanistan to meet his Pakistani counterpart on Christmas day has become the showstopper of Indian foreign policy initiatives in 2015.
December 25, 2015, might well go down as a red letter day in the history of Indian foreign policy. Having addressed the Afghan parliament after inaugurating its new building in Kabul, Narendra Modi tweeted: “Spoke to PM Nawaz Sharif & wished him on his birthday.”
And moments later: “Looking forward to meeting PM Nawaz Sharif in Lahore today, where I will drop by on my way back to Delhi.”
Stories may arise of how it was a spur-of-the-moment decision and sceptics may claim it was a pre-planned arrangement but the fact remains that it was a diplomatic masterstroke, comparable with no other when it comes to volatile India-Pakistan relations.
It was the culmination of a flurry of diplomatic engagements between the two South Asian neighbours across nearly a month, following what was seemingly an impromptu meeting between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of the Paris climate summit on November 30.
Following this, on December 6, Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Naseer Khan Janjua held a meeting in Bangkok which was also attended by Foreign Secretaries S. Jaishankar and Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry.
Two days later, External Affairs Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj landed in Islamabad to attend the Heart of Asia conference which engages “heart of Asia” countries for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.
On December 9, she told the media there that Modi would visit Islamabad next year to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit. Then, after a courtesy call on Sharif, she held a bilateral with his advisor on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz.
The two then came out with a joint statement in which Pakistan assured India that all steps were being taken to expedite the early conclusion of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack trial.
“Both sides, accordingly, agreed to a comprehensive bilateral dialogue and directed the the foreign secretaries to work out the modalities and schedule of the meetings under the dialogue, including peace and security, CBMs (confidence buildins measures), Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, economic and commercial cooperation, counter-terrorism, narcotics control, humanitarian issues, people-to-people exchanges and religious tourism,” the statement said.
Two weeks later came the Modi stopover. Yes, it was a personal visit. It was Sharif’s birthday and his granddaughter’s wedding. And Modi made those two historical tweets through his personal @narendramodi Twitter handle and not the official @PMOIndia. So, the post-Ufa fiasco has been forgotten and critics of Modi’s foreign policy initiatives have been silenced – at least for some time.
Pakistan apart, India did stick to its policy of “neighbourhood first”. With Bangladesh, the long-standing enclave exchange problem was settled constitutionally while with Sri Lanka ties are being expanded with a new government in Colombo. Though the crisis arising out of adopting a new constitution refuses to die down in Mepal and fingers are being pointed at India, New Delhi has firmly maintained its stance that it was an internal matter of the Himalayan nation.
According to Sushma Swaraj, India’s engagement with China has been with a greater sense of confidence, whether it be the vexed boundary issue or exploring economic opportunities.
Neighbourhood apart, New Delhi’s pro-active diplomacy was manifested in Modi’s hectic tours to different parts of the world. In the process, there has been a significant shift of focus in India’s diplomacy to its economic dimensions.
As Sushma Swaraj said in a year-end business meet: “It is apparent that many of the flagship programmes of the government can be significantly strengthened through international collaboration.”
So, if Germany and Singapore have come on board as partners for the Skill India campaign, Modi’s visit to California, including a town hall meeting with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, showed the international response to Digital India.
The European Union has offered its expertise and technology for the Ganga rejuvenation and water management projects. And all the major powers India has engaged with have shown their interest in the Smart Cities project.
Foreign direct investments in the last one year has increased by around 40 percent.
India’s nuclear diplomacy also saw a new high with civilian nuclear deals being clinched with Australia, Canada and France. Japan too came on board.
That India’s voice is being heard has been manifested by the fact that Modi’s proposal for a Global Solar Alliance of 122 countries between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn was adopted at the Conference of Parties (CoP) 21 climate summit in Paris. His call in the East Asia Summit for a commitment to freedom of navigation and overflights and unimpeded commerce has not gone unheard.
Apart from Pakistan, the end of the year saw two other diplomatic highs. If Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to New Delhi saw Japan meeting a significant part of its commitment last year of $35 billion in investment with a bullet train to boot, Modi’s visit to Moscow resulted in a significant boost to India’s defence and nuclear manufacturing.
In October, New Delhi hosted the India Africa Forum Summit which saw the participation of all 54 African countries – no mean feat.
The government also continued its policy of active engagement with Indians overseas with the prime minister making his trademark speeches in diaspora public events in Canada, the US, Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Malaysia. The humane touch became apparent in the evacuation of stranded Indians in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
The year started with a high – at the Republic Day parade where Barack Obama became the first US president to attend as chief guest.
The year ended with another high – at the ancestral home of the Pakistan prime minister near Lahore where Modi and Sharif sipped Kashmiri tea.