Did PM Modi’s Honeymoon Travels Bring India Frequent Flyer Miles?
How is one to assess Narendra Modi’s foreign policy at the end of four years of his term? Certainly, it has been characterised by great energy – 36 foreign trips to 54 countries so far.
Some, like those to Palestine and Mongolia, were in the “first ever” category for an Indian PM. Others, even to important countries like UAE or Seychelles, were after three decades and more, even neighbours like Sri Lanka and Nepal had not seen an Indian PM in 28 and 17 years respectively.
What a 56” Hug Feels Like
Visiting US for the first time shortly after he took over in 2014, Modi wowed the Indian diaspora with a rock-star like appearance at the Madison Square Garden. The attendance of several senators, 30-odd representatives and a governor sent a powerful political signal to Barack Obama whom he would meet in Washington DC a few days later.
“You have given me a lot of love,” The New York Times quoted PM Modi telling his audience. “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever.” Foreign policy has been as much about the country as about Modi himself, his image as a global leader who can hug a Trump and call an Obama by his given name.
There is the Modi-touch in his style, the 56” chest spread on a larger canvas. So instead of inviting a head of government or two for his inauguration in 2014, he invited all the heads of SAARC governments.
Likewise, instead of one chief guest at the Republic Day parade this year, Modi persuaded the entire ASEAN leadership to line up. Chutzpah is not something he lacks.
Modi has torn up the protocol manual. His physical embraces are a legend, the measure of his favour is whether he receives or sees off a guest personally.
He sat the sedate Xi Jinping on a swing on the banks of the Sabarmati in Ahmadabad, did a chai pe charcha with “Barack” at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, and took French President Emmanuel Macron for a boat ride in Varanasi.
This is the style that must have persuaded the normally stiff and protocol-conscious Chinese to agree to an unprecedented informal summit in Wuhan in April.
In many ways, his foreign policy is about telling the world that now that Modi is here, India’s assumption of ‘great power’ status will be accelerated. His ideas were articulated by his Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar who declared in Singapore in 2015 that India was now “a leading power, rather than just a balancing power.” There is a certitude of sorts in the worldview of Modi and the RSS that India is the Vishwa Guru (universal teacher/leader).
But wishes can only achieve so much. At the end of the day, your policy also has to factor in the behaviour of your foreign interlocutor. By that measure, the Modi foreign policies have, in the main, largely followed the footsteps of his predecessors.
Though there has also been a marked whimsicality, as evidenced by its marked U-turns on Pakistan, China, and Nepal.
But when you do the math, the outcomes are disappointing, in great measure because of the Modi government’s own actions. In the neighbourhood, Modi first befriended Nepal, then blockaded it and now wants to be friends again. On Christmas Day 2015, he descended on Lahore to celebrate Nawaz Sharif’s birthday. A week later, the Pakistan Army responded with the Pathankot attack. Since then, India has sought to corral Pakistan on account of terrorism, but with little success.
As for China, after an early exchange of visits by the leaders of the two countries, relations went south when New Delhi sought to shame Beijing into supporting its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and to have Masood Azhar declared a terrorist in a UN listing.
India gains nothing but prestige by becoming an NSG member, and a UN listing would hardly curb Azhar, just as it had not done Lashkar-e-Taiba’s Hafiz Saeed who had been listed in 2008.
New Delhi very publicly boycotted the Belt and Road Forum in 2017, even though its partners like the US and Japan participated. It took the Doklam standoff and the prospect of Chinese stirring up the border on an election year to convince Modi to return to a more realistic low-key approach towards China. As it is, flush with cash, Beijing is now surging all over India in its own backyard of the South Asia and the Indian Ocean Region.
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Addressing a joint session of the US Congress in June 2016, Modi uttered that memorable phrase that spoke of the two countries overcoming “the hesitations of history”. But the reality is that the ties with the US show incremental enlargement more than anything else. Modi’s signing up to a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean and signing a base-sharing agreement was merely building on foundations established by the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments.
Likewise, India’s ties with Japan have followed a script laid out first by the Vajpayee government, helped, no doubt, by Shinzo Abe’s prime ministership and Chinese assertiveness.
Perhaps the greatest and often unstated gains of a Modi foreign policy has been in the Middle East where he has managed to maintain and build upon a delicate relationship which balances India’s interests with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel and Iran. This is an area which India has had to navigate alone since the US conception of the Indo-Pacific does not include the north Arabian Sea.
In foreign policy, as domestic, Modi is driven by a deep desire to achieve things.
However, as of now, he has not quite managed to make the kind of impact he has wanted to. In great measure, this is because he has not been able to accelerate India’s economic development or use his Digital India, Skill India, Make in India or Start Up India to generate jobs, enhance skills, and accelerate manufacturing. The foreign policy consequences of an economically resurgent India are obvious.
In the meantime, the world will not stand still. Modi must face elections in 2019. Somewhat chastened, he is now reaching out to China and Nepal, and reportedly also to Pakistan.
In the meantime, he must factor in the disruption that Donald Trump could create in an area of his great success – the Middle East. Runaway oil prices, and, god forbid, war, would spell disaster as much for the region as for India.