Narendra Modi would have done well to take a few more months before he agreed to receive or call on heads of countries like Japan, China, and the US.
The prime minister is to settle down in his job and it was too soon for him to have full awareness of the nuances of intricate international issues, says B S Raghavan.
First, a disclosure: I am a Narendra Modi admirer. I have written on June 16 that we have at long last a prime minister who can inspire.
His Independence Day speech from the Red Fort ramparts only strengthened my belief and enhanced my admiration. He bears himself with great dignity and conviction in whatever he says and does, and has all it takes to in terms of leadership qualities.
His reception and speech at the Madison Square Garden in New York was fantastic and must have made every Indian swell with pride. Besides being his admirer and well-wisher, I have also been in the power-structures of India and the US, and served as an international civil servant.
As one who has been a student of governance and public affairs for well-nigh 70 years, I claim for myself the right to express views which may be unpleasant and which, I sincerely think, are good for him.
Next, a disclaimer: Although this article appears after Modi's return from his visit to the United States, it is not a balance-sheet on his mission. Hundreds of made-to-order pandits have sprawled themselves over camera lenses and laptop screens with scholarly expositions from which one can have one's pick. I am not going to tread on this much-trodden ground, except to remark, in passing, that the most noteworthy part of Modi's trip to the US is the enormous interest he roused in the world media which usually ignore the sayings and doings of leaders of South East Asia as being of little consequence to their concerns
What I am going to do is to set out, as objectively as I can, my overall impression of Modi's sallies into diplomacy after he took over as prime minister.
My observation of all those who have been at the top political echelons of governments since Independence is that they like nothing better than parleys with foreign big shots whether on Indian soil or in host countries.
For one thing, everybody is on his sweetest and best behaviour, everything is nothing less than excellent, the photo-ops make the historic moment come alive, and every visit is nothing short of a thumping success.
All the more so because foreign affairs are not within the ken of the average politician and the man-in-the-street and everything that is put out is accepted at face value.
If one puts through the special software that is available for the purpose the texts of the joint statements and contents of media handouts, nearly 95 per cent of the phraseology and sentences would be found to be identical not only as between the same countries but among different countries for as long as one goes back in time!
In fact, there are practiced professional hacks in every foreign ministry who can do the cut-and paste job of producing these statements and media notes for the asking while sleep walking! Controversies such as the one on the nuclear deal in Manmohan Singh-George W Bush's time are very rare.
From this perspective, there need be no hesitation at all in assuming that whatever has come out of the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India and Modi's visits to Japan and the US presages taking the strategic partnership (comprising all the ingredients that have been figuring all the time) to the next higher level.
All that said, I want to come to the unpleasant part. If I am to fit the goings-on into a capsule, I would say they were too early and too blurred at achieve the intended goals. The mandarins in the external affairs ministry and the Prime Minister's Office brass failed to take note of the fact that the Modi government was still to find its feet and that Modi himself was yet to settle down in his job and it was too soon for him to have full awareness of the nuances of intricate issues.
Absent those credible and manifest credentials, heads of States/governments cannot carry conviction with their counterparts, and will merely be objects of curiosity.
In the case of the Modi government, there was the additional drawback of his ministers being greenhorns and totally out of depth in their charges and the government, as a whole, being hobbled by lack of talent.
To cap it all, in public perception, there is little contribution from even the so-called heavyweight ministers.
Rajnath Singh, the home minister, is still groping, Arun Jaitley holding the all-important portfolios of finance and defence, not only seems ill-quipped to handle them, and is in any case not functioning to full capacity because of indifferent health; and Sushma Swaraj is apparently repeating what is contained in the briefs handed by foreign service bureaucrats who are trapped in shibboleths dating back to Jawaharlal Nehru.
All these must have been dutifully portrayed to their respective governments by embassies in India. Consequently, there is bound to be a tendency in foreign capitals to watch him for some more time.
In these circumstances, Modi would have done well to take a few more months before he agreed to receive or call on heads of countries like Japan, China, and the US, with only some promise of investment and litany of deals covering familiar domains to show for the trouble.
There is a second salient to these prematurely executed exercises that has particular reference to Modi as a person.
I learn from reliable sources in the US that for all the effusive welcome he received from President Barack Obama, and the high praise showered on him as the prime mover for the Bharatiya Janata Party's spectacular win in the last election, there is still a reservation at the highest levels in the US administration inhibiting them from accepting him whole-heartedly, as they did Dr Manmohan Singh.
That is what explains the presiding officers, Joe Biden and John Boehner, of the Senate and the House of Representatives, not extending to him, on untenable excuses, the invitation to address a joint sitting, and President Obama confining the official dinner to about 20 guests, half of whom belonged to Modi's entourage. Whereas, the same Obama had assembled 300 guests at a fabulous State dinner in the White House at a cost of more than half-a-million dollars for Dr Singh, which was so glittering that some people even gate-crashed into it!
The inhibition I referred to is said to extend to some countries in the European Union as well. Otherwise, will the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, dare, in the case of any other head of government, to cancel her scheduled meeting and dinner with him, on his way to Brazil to attend the BRICS meeting, on the pretext of having to watch the World Cup football final? Couldn't she have made up for it by inviting him over during the present visit?
There is one other intriguing aspect of inept timing of the US visit that, I have been told, was the cause of all-round embarrassment on the US side in whatever way it was masked or muted.
Knowing full well Modi's long-established practice of observing a fast during Navaratri, why was the visit made to fall pat in the middle of the festival? Couldn't it have been planned a few weeks before or after?
Also, why be in such haste to meet Obama, considering that he was a lame duck President, having less than two years to go, slapped with the lowest popularity rating and commanding no clout either with the US Congress or the people at large.
Finally, Modi's decision to stick to Hindi. It can be justified by all manner of reasoning: National pride; being at ease in interactions; helping to express oneself better; being an accepted practice in international intercourse. (A Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande, Shinzo Abe or Xi Jinping speaks only his language at all meetings).
Even so, since Modi's English is good, he will make a vastly greater impact with his sharp intelligence, quickness on the uptake, sincerity of purpose and commitment to achieve set goals if he makes at least important points in English.
For instance, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he made a number of strikingly insightful and thought-provoking observations, but, being in Hindi, their importance was not fully grasped.
Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Barack Obama at the White House. Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com