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Modi's year on the world stage

By T P Sreenivasan
May 19, 2015 12:45 IST
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'Modi's promise of change during the election campaign was on the domestic front, but his first year in office focused on foreign policy beyond all expectations,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi 

The first year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in foreign affairs has an uncanny resemblance to Barack Obama's first year as United States President.

It was a year of visibility, speech making, vision building, daydreaming, sloganeering, fashion setting, innovating, posturing and promising change.

At the end of it all, Modi looks impressive as the leader of a resurgent India, an inspiring speaker, a man of promise, and a man of integrity. He has emerged as a true brand ambassador of India, often appearing bigger than the brand.

Even without any concrete results to show, both Obama and Modi won approbation in the first year itself. Obama won a Nobel Prize for Peace and Modi came close to becoming Time magazine's Man of the Year.

He made it to the cover of Time magazine before completing his first year, portrayed as a man of action and vision, a messiah to uplift India from poverty. The likes of Moody's raised the rating of India even before the economic liberalisation was put in place.

Indian foreign policy remained unchanged, without anyone noticing it, very much like US foreign policy at the end of the first year of the Obama administration. The world expects Modi, however, to do wonders before he completes his first term as prime minister and goes on to win another.

Modi had his moments of disillusionment throughout the year, partly because of his illusions of grandeur about India and himself. The invitation extended to the leaders of SAARC countries had a touch of arrogance, associated with an emperor inviting lesser monarchs to his coronation. But still they came, perhaps because of curiosity to measure the man, whom they had heard so much about.

Modi's hope that his gesture will be reciprocated by a new warmth and respect was belied because he had nothing to tell them except the old refrain of friendship and cooperation with plenty of caveats. They repeated their woes of frustration felt at the hands of India, which was like a stonewall, when they made their demands of their big and powerful neighbour.

One initiative that Modi made to resume the dialogue with Pakistan turned sour when the latter decided to test the waters by meeting the Hurriyat leaders. India and Pakistan were back to square one when they hurled accusations against each other at the UN General Assembly.

The encounter with the Chinese president in India was even more of a disillusionment for Modi. The charm and warmth he unleashed on Xi was reciprocated with an incursion on the Line of Actual Control, something that the Chinese did whenever anything significant happened between the two countries.

Having advocated a tough policy towards China during the election, Modi was constrained to tell the Chinese leader to his face that war and peace were not possible simultaneously. The situation was barely salvaged by the economic promises China held out during the summit.

Having burnt his fingers with SAARC and China, Modi was determined to make a success of his US visit. He could have delayed that journey by sulking over the visa issue, the Devyani Khobragade incident, which he had resented and the BJP sponsored nuclear liability law.

But he put those impediments behind to pursue with the US his twin objectives of securing investment and strengthening security. The deftness with which he raised the relations to a higher level showed that the issues that bedeviled relations were not insurmountable.

He unleashed the money power and influence of the Indian-American community to provide the backdrop of his visit even before he reached the White House and overwhelmed Barack Obama. Madison Square Garden witnessed the Modi magic, which was not lost on the Washington elite.

What impressed Obama was not the immediate solution of the problems, but the determination of India to overcome past animosities and move forward.

The success of the US visit came in the form of a return visit by Obama on Republic Day to become the first US President to visit India twice. The new understanding on the liability law appeared to be the big-ticket accomplishment initially, but the bigger deal was on the Asia Pacific.

And even bigger was the avenue opened for greater defence cooperation. The strategic partnership with the US assumed new dimensions and a new dynamism.

Modi overplayed his personal rapport card and Obama's parting shot on religious intolerance came as an unkind cut. The jacket fiasco was nothing but a comic interlude. The unprecedented mutuality of interests discovered between India and the US is Modi's biggest foreign policy success.

The multitude of the other trophies on Modi's wall is testimony to his virtual Odyssey across continents, from Japan to Australia to Fiji and from Germany to France to Canada.

They were more than ceremonial or symbolic because he had a specific agenda for each, much of which was welcomed by his hosts. Modi took in his stride Japan's adamant stand on the nuclear agreement and the Italian machinations, which sabotaged a possible EU summit. Modi's assertion that India has a right rather than mere eligibility to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council may not carry conviction.

It is to the credit of the foreign service that there were no protocol snafus or crossing of wires, though the visits must have strained the resources of our missions abroad.

The scaling down of the retinue of the prime minister may have helped, but the pomp and show has only increased. Air India One showed signs of fatigue, but it did not cause any disruption to the epic journeys.

The visit to China came as a fitting finale to the first year of the prime minister's feverish foreign policy forays, which took him also to uranium-rich Mongolia and a model of industrial development, South Korea.

By stressing the primacy of economic cooperation with China, Modi covered up his disappointment over the lack of any breakthrough in the burning strategic issues like the border.

But his forthright demand for progress in festering issues must have made a deep impression on the Chinese leadership. Modi played the ball straight into the Chinese court though Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are keeping it in the air so far.

The truth is that India is more a target than a partner in China's worldview. Evidently, Modi carried with him not only Nehru's dream of Asian solidarity, but also Patel's scepticism of China.

India's place in the global puzzle that China is assiduously putting together is yet to be determined. Though there is nothing new in India-China encounters, Modi certainly set the Yangtze on fire.

If Rajiv Gandhi rediscovered the Indian Diaspora and the subsequent governments vied with each other to cultivate it, Modi made it a priority concern in India's diplomacy.

The initial response of the community was overwhelming, but they continue to have their bodies in their cozy homes abroad, their hearts in India and their wealth in Swiss banks.

Ironically, in the midst of Modi's Herculean efforts to bring investments to India, reports came that Indian investments abroad reached unprecedented heights. The success of Diaspora Diplomacy does not depend on the concessions India keeps giving to the community, but in the community adopting a 'Look India' policy, when it comes to investment.

Modi's promise of change during the election campaign was on the domestic front, but his first year in office focused on foreign policy beyond all expectations. At the heart of his approach is the conviction that the world has become interdependent and that his domestic success will depend on the resources he can muster from abroad. And hence the slogan, 'Make in India' rather than 'Made in India' or 'Made for India.'

Apart from fulfilling the promise of change, the future holds the challenge to deal with India's traditional friendships. India has promises to keep in Russia, the UK, the Gulf and Africa. While he has to slow down his pace of foreign visits to eliminate the red tape and to lay the red carpet he has promised his invitees, he still has to traverse many paths that beckon him.

He cannot rest on his laurels and the Odyssey must continue.

T P Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India at the IAEA; Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council and Director General, Kerala International Centre.

You can read Ambassador Sreenivasan's earlier columns here.

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