Being his own best publicist, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had indicated just what would be the tenor of his transatlantic tour in a tweet on March 26th: “My France, Germany & Canada visit is centred around supporting India’s economic agenda & creating jobs for our youth.”
In the age of Asia-Pacific, a focus on the Atlantic may appear a tad anachronistic. But Modi is, if anything, innovative when it comes to foreign policy. Note, a planned trip to the UK was postponed till after the May 2015 general elections there.
At an overall level the visits complete the set of tours to advanced democracies of the world – the US, Japan, Australia and now France, Germany and Canada. They address the Modi government’s approach to a constituency which is at the heart of modern finance and industry – though they could well be called post-industrial cultures today.
The goal is to showcase the Modi government’s sense of purpose and determination to drive a transformational agenda in the country, as well as to create a network of strategic allies which can be of use in dealing with India’s difficult neighbours, Pakistan and China.
Given the economic thrust, it was not surprising that meetings with CEOs, participation in industrial fairs, visits to industrial and skilling institutions featured prominently in the agenda. The companies of countries like France, Germany and Canada set standards around the world. Travelling to China last week this writer saw control equipment, spectrometers, assay machines, DNA profiling and genomic measurement equipment built in France and Germany dotting the labs of the high-tech industry zone in Xian, as well as the physical presence of small, medium and large European and North American companies so important for the Chinese economic miracle.
But there are other aspects to Modi’s transatlantic tour as well. First, the connect with the diaspora, especially the important one in Canada. It formed part of a pattern that has been visible in Modi visits to the US and Australia, more cautiously in Fiji, and more assertively in Mauritius and Sri Lanka.
Second, the visits should be seen in the context of the importance of summitry in modern international relations. Dealing directly with heads of government is a far quicker way of getting business done these days. So the quality time that François Hollande, Angela Merkel and Stephen Harper made for Modi is important in an age when leaders meet each other frequently and you tend to get lost in the crowd in important multilateral summits if you don’t establish a modicum of personal chemistry through bilateral contact.
With the US president being given special authority to finish negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), we are probably on the verge of a new world trading environment with negative implications for India. The US and Canada are part of TPP, whose finalisation will undoubtedly give an impetus to a parallel Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between EU and the US. In such circumstances, we will need all the friends we can manage in pushing our trade and investment promotion agenda.
The third aspect relates to India’s strategic goals. France has a permanent membership in the UN Security Council and both French and German companies play a role in India’s defence industry. France has been a friend in need, disinclined to use embargoes to push its foreign policy goals.
There are also some common themes in the visits. One is that of energy and space technology cooperation. Both Canada and France are important nuclear technology players. Canada was the first to help India with pressurised heavy water reactors in the 1950s and 1960s and it can offer more by way of upgrading and modernising this technology. A new pact with Canada will lead to the supply of uranium for the Indian nuclear industry. Canada is a special case when it comes to energy, given its own innovative oil and gas industry which can help India diversify its sources of supply.
Vocational education and skilling are another aspect of what advanced countries can offer India. Our current education system is at a dead end and the Modi plan for making India a global manufacturing hub rests vitally on the creation of trained manpower that can drive the Make in India dream. Germany is a leader here, but both Canada and France have their own unique systems and experiences.
A new theme relates to security. Developed democracies are now facing the prospect of a new kind of terrorist threat from home-grown religious extremists. In an era where terrorists get radicalised by the internet and move effortlessly across borders, cooperation has to be both practical and efficacious. There is, as well, a great deal of expertise in countering cyber threats in all three countries. Recall, in 2009, Canadian researchers revealed the existence of the GhostNet run out of China – which had penetrated Tibetan government in exile as well as Indian government computers.
Modi’s visits resemble roadshows with their attendant hype, even though they also have a larger strategic purpose. But like all roadshows there is a time for publicity, and a time to get down to work on the MoUs, agreements, promises and commitments.
Times of India April 20, 2015