Indian diplomats, particularly those weaned on PG Wodehouse and Lord Curzon’s Frontiers speech, were horrified when they heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi refer to US President and Chinese President by their first names.
They are also discomfited by his sartorial tastes, they would rather he stuck to the British stiff and starched manner.
But Modi has used his personal touch with great effect when it comes to dealing with both situations and other heads of State. And it has worked.
His candid chat with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad last September helped the Asian giants end the contentious Chumar military stand-off in Ladakh.
His frequent exchanges with US President Barack Obama have helped India negotiate the global diplomatic minefields on World Trade Organization or climate change issues.
No one can accuse the Indian prime minister of not having a sharply honed sense of the country’s place in the comity of nations, but he tends not to go by bureaucratic tradition when dealing with external affairs.
By evacuating Indian and foreign nationals from civil war-hit Yemen and tremblor-hit Nepal in large numbers, the prime minister has projected India’s speed, scale and skill in handling natural and man-made disasters.
While his predecessor Manmohan Singh showed his often understated skills in mobilising the Indian Navy for rescue and relief post the December 26, 2004 Asian tsunami, Modi’s finest hour till now has been his decisive leadership in handling the Nepal earthquake.
Returning on a Metro after inaugurating the Intelligence Bureau’s National Intelligence Academy (NIA) with National Security Adviser Ajit Doval on April 25, the prime minister felt the tremblor and immediately asked Doval to ascertain its epicentre.
The origins were traced to Nepal even though initial casualty figures were said to be below 50.
From his experience of handling the 2001 Bhuj quake, Modi told his advisers that the damage would be huge. Within minutes, the foreign, home and defence ministries were summoned for a 3 pm meeting with the prime minister.
A team from the Indian embassy in Kathmandu was rushed to check the runway condition of Tribhuvan International Airport, Modi spoke to Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala in Indonesia at the meeting and the first Indian C-17 Globemaster aircraft with skilled National Disaster Response Force teams and medical equipment landed in the mountain nation within five hours of the calamity.
Incidentally, the first Chinese plane carrying rescue and relief landed a full 24 hours later.
The alacrity of the response was motivated by a desire not to allow any other country to occupy the space that Nepal holds for India.
Assistance was extended to foreigners who asked for help as well. The only caveat that the prime minister had before giving the go ahead was that the Indian effort was to support the Nepal government and any move to either step on Kathmandu’s toes or deviate from this would be punished.
The Nepal prime minister told Doval on May 1 that it was the speed of the Indian response that gave hope to Nepal and virtually forced a rapid global response to the tragedy.
With Modi personally sending his key aide PK Mishra, who handled the Bhuj earthquake, to Nepal to assess the disaster, New Delhi will be involved in the rehabilitation of the Himalayan nation for months to come.
If the message in Yemen and Nepal is that India now has the capacity and the capability to project benign power anywhere in the world, then Modi’s visit to a World War I memorial at Neuve-Chapelle in France on April 11 and India’s participation in 100th commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey are about its valiant past.
India lost more than 5,000 soldiers in these two World War I campaigns and was also among the founder signatories to the League of Nations.
The message from this and the importance afforded to the Indian Ocean region is that India deserves a membership in the United Nations Security Council.
It should not have to beg for something which is its right, given its successful global peace-keeping record.
The next on the agenda is Modi’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September where he will expand on India’s rightful demand to be a part of the Security Council.
In this context, the prime minister’s interaction with Chinese President Xi in Beijing and Xian later this month will be of great interest as the latter has been lukewarm in endorsing India’s claim to the Security Council and has not been averse to using its proxies to thwart New Delhi’s manoeuvres.
The signing of the memorandum of understanding with Iran allowing India to develop Chabahar port followed by Modi’s proposed visit to all five Central Asian Republics in July not only hold great economic promise with a new trade route to Afghanistan and beyond but will also trigger keen competition between New Delhi and Beijing.
Modi is a combative politician. He does not expect that India’s rise will be watched benignly by other world powers.