Europe is the dark continent of Indian foreign policy, a region of overriding importance but where political murkiness means mapping out direction is difficult.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has helped move the bilateral agenda between India and the major European states, a necessary step as the traditional basis of Indian interest in Europe has been on the wane.
Modi’s visit to France and Germany reinforced how much both countries — and Europe as a whole — can contribute to his ambitious plans to restructure the Indian economy. The failure to hold an India-EU summit in Brussels, however, is a reminder that this is a relationship defined by prickly issues but minimal strategic ballast.
The traditional Indian relationship with Europe has been largely about trade and investment, secondarily about immigration and diaspora ties, followed by the model that European integration and civil society provide for India and, finally, about everything else — including defence. The economic relationship remains important even if it is skewed towards Britain and, as a region, Europe is second to West Asia as an overseas economic partner.
However, the continuing Eurozone crisis, the return of revanchist politics and, most recently, the Russian takeover of a chunk of eastern Ukraine are among the more obvious reasons why Europe is being viewed more as an example of the path nation-states should not go down.
Nonetheless, Europe remains the richest part of the world with many of its parts remaining global bellwether in technology, education and social stability. It continues to seek, admittedly without much success, a coherent independent foreign policy. The question is how all this can be used to help the rise and evolution of India into a modern, wealthy and pluralistic society.
Mr Modi is not the first person to grasp that India’s economic future lies in reviving its manufacturing sector. But he is doing much more than anyone to leverage foreign relations to achieve this goal.
He is also unique in his commitment to fighting climate change. This is one reason Germany, whose manufacturing prowess almost puts it in a league of its own, is a must-go country for the Modi government. France is important for its competitive advantages in the nuclear and defence sectors. As in so much, the potential in ties will only be realised through Modi’s accomplishments on the home front.