(An analysis of the PM’s latest foreign trip that did not always go to plan.)
It has become an established fact of India’s political life that whenever Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads abroad, he takes over the domestic news cycle. Of course, Indian TV channels give him a lot of airtime at home but they are lately struggling to provide him wall-to-wall coverage as they used to. For instance, if he heads for a rally in Bihar, they are perhaps a touch reluctant to announce his arrival at an airport, follow his convoy en route to his rally and then trail him back to Air India One. There is no such problem with foreign trips. His international calendars are endowed with huge significance as journalists breathlessly vie to track each step interviewing whoever they encounter on the way. Evidently, the 1.25 billion Indians the PM fondly invokes experience a form of existential freeze whenever he goes abroad, in that nothing that is worth reporting happens to them while he is away.
Anyway, since the visit is over it makes sense to assess how it all went, where Modi did well and where he didn’t.
To begin with, Modi again underlined his confidence levels, the admirable lack of self-doubt that allows him to traverse several cultural worlds and acclimatize comfortably to the world of international diplomacy and business. He also demonstrates great stamina to take on a punishing schedule featuring bilateral meetings, delegation-level talks and various speaking engagements. There is however, a gap between the rhetoric of success that was purveyed and the reality of outcomes. His script-writers and policymakers may need to reflect on the following:
The first thing is that, contrary to what our media suggests, the Modi visit barely got notice in the US media, which many take as a measure of his global reach. Even his meetings with Fortune 500 companies’ leaders and tech figures and his speech at the UN did not create the presumed buzz. That the American media was indifferent to Modi’s presence was noted fairly early on and this pattern persisted through the marquee events that followed. For example, a search for Narendra Modi on Google News between Saturday and Tuesday - even after the meeting with Obama - showed that only a fraction of the articles that turned up were from US news outlets. And since algorithms do not usually lie, we can presume that even if pieces were being written somewhere in the US they were not really being read. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani got a lot more coverage in the US and world media. In effect, what India has been held captive to in recent days is a domestic saga featuring the NRIs’ lovefest with Modi and his roadshows for business figures - not quite the candidate-Obama-in-Berlin or Khomeini-returns-to-Iran moment that we are led to believe it is - every year.
Two, the foreign policy deliverables were underwhelming. The G4 summit with Germany, Japan and Brazil was represented as the impatient collective roar of revisionist powers that would force status-quoist P5 nations to yield on their monopoly as permanent members of the UN Security Council. It was nothing of the sort and as this analysis points out, there’s a long way to go for the aspiration to materialize and nothing really holds the grouping together except this agenda item, which Germany and Japan are reluctant to push anyway. The meeting with Obama also had weak outcomes with differences persisting on Afghanistan-Pakistan issues and climate change, notwithstanding reported back-channel discussions .
Three, the business outcomes are uncertain too. Captains of American business from different sectors trooped in to see Modi at the Waldorf Astoria on Saturday. The PM also met with 42 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Modi assured them of the investment climate he was trying to create but they nonetheless complained of the struggles of operating in India including “complicated regulations, excessive permitting, confusing bureaucracy, poor infrastructure, overlapping, local taxes etc”. Our media gushed about the collective worth of the companies of 42 CEOs as $4.5 trillion (what difference does that make, really?), but the corporates made no promises and held on to their cash - the Sensex irreverently took a modest dip of 247 points between Thursday and Monday.
Undaunted, Modi pressed on to Silicon Valley visiting Tesla to see the development of electric cars, met with IT-leaders like Tim Cook of Apple, Sundar Pichai of Google, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and held the extraordinary town hall at Facebook presided over by Mark Zuckerberg.
Then again, what were the outcomes and deliverables? Google will help India set-up free Wi-Fi at 500 railway stations. (Do we need Google for that?) It will also enable typing in 10 Indian languages. Microsoft will partner with India to set up broadband technology in 5 lakh villages. Chipmaker Qualcomm will invest $150 million for Indian start-ups in the mobile and ‘internet of everything’ realm. Modi reportedly invited Apple to set up a manufacturing base in India, but CEO Tim Cook “responded positively”, without giving an indication that the company actually would establish operations here.
That’s it? Given that some Americans often ruefully make the point that they did not get the returns for pushing the nuclear deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), we too are also liable to wonder what India got in return for the $3 billion deal with Boeing for the supply of 22 Apache attack helicopters and 15 Chinook heavy-lift choppers that was okayed just prior to Modi’s visit.
Of course, all transactions don’t happen or conclude during one visit - and certainly India-US relations are so much more than deals with Boeing. It is also certainly important for the PM to meet with business leaders, cultivate international relationships and get a first-hand grip on their perceptions and concerns. But to represent every outing as transformative and the relentless loop of projecting India as the land of opportunity when the kind of economic reform and infrastructural overhaul they want is very provisional at the moment makes for a tired narrative that hurts Modi’s credibility and, by extension, India’s.
Speaking of credibility (four), India’s citizenry and the BJP have reasons to be troubled by Modi’s exaggerated focus on well-to-do NRIs. The BJP should know that growing up in an unequal society, Indians have a nose for social dynamics, they instinctively pick up who values whom, who people genuflect to and have contempt for. They are bound to notice his sunny exuberance abroad, his eager embrace of (some) dignitaries and draw the contrast between a PM who avoids the media at home while fielding questions at a town hall abroad, one who generously extols the virtues of NRIs, talking about the “magic” they weave on computer keyboards as IT professionals, while not adequately commiserating with the daily lives of Indians at home as they struggle with price rise, drought, access to basic services including water, schools, health and sanitation. Many will find it difficult to square the terms of their existence with the dreamy optimism his speeches were laced with.
Lastly, Modi’s preference for controlled conversations with audiences do not help him as a politician. As expected, there were no challenging questions at Facebook and the NRI crowd he addressed was often cheering mindlessly, let alone entertain any critical thoughts. This unfortunately reinforces Modi’s isolation and prevents him from absorbing all he can from foreign trips. Put differently, Modi is avoiding chances to test out alternative intellectual frequencies by preferring to navigate between the ideologically-laden policy bubble he lives in Delhi and the cultural ghetto of NRIs in the US. To restrict his interactions to those who admire him and those who have an extractive interest in India is to inhibit his development as a politician. This is likely to extend his dependence on bureaucrats who would prefer he stick to the beaten path. Modi’s speech at the UN Sustainable Development Summit, for instance, was particularly dull. To emerge as a statesman, Modi will need to insinuate himself imaginatively into world debates and that is unlikely to happen so long as he avoids critical thinkers.
Going forward, Modi will need to get an honest measure of the successes and failures of his US visit, control the spin to maintain credibility, and weigh the costs of limiting his reach to NRIs who agree with him.
(The views expressed are personal. The author tweets as @SushilAaron.)