Narendra Modi gave his first expansive interview on foreign policy — as Prime Minister — to Japanese journalists ahead of his visit to Japan on Saturday. A few things stood out from this interesting interaction.
First, it said a lot about Modi’s media engagement. The PM held forth candidly with foreign journalists in ways he has not bothered with the Indian media since coming to power. This may be the beginning of a pattern which sees him being candid with foreign audiences while maintaining reticence at home. The reasons are understandable. Modi needs the world media to develop his brand globally while he is conflicted about journalists at home who tend to be either hostile or friendly to him. Having cheerleaders in the media is useful but it generates the politics of unequal access, i.e. the problem of picking favourites. Foreign media interactions are, in any case, easier to choreograph on your terms than prickly domestic ones.
Second, this interview had the stamp of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) all over it. Watching the division of labour between the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the MEA is a hobby for South Block watchers, who try and discern any PMO influence that deviates from MEA’s lines. There was no such divergence this time; Modi was remarkably on message on a range of issues. His statements on the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces, the threat Afghanistan faces from terrorism and extremism from across its borders, his view on nuclear issues etc were all box standard MEA-speak.
Third, Modi’s foreign policy instincts are, again understandably, shaped by his Gujarat experience. Countries that were nice to him during his chief ministerial stint will get attention during his tenure. He talked about his previous visits to Japan and underlined that it was the only country that was a partner for all Vibrant Gujarat summits. The roots of his emergence as an Asian strongman of significance stem as much from a sense of reciprocity towards Japan and China who invested in him in the past as much by a cold strategic calculation that economic power is shifting from the West to the East.
Fourth, Japan is genuinely important to India. Modi’s language on this is fairly exuberant. Japan is at the “heart of India’s Look East policy”, both countries have shared strategic perspectives and will explore high-end defence technology cooperation in the future. Japan supported India’s infrastructure development over the years and it “will always remain our preferred economic partner”. By contrast, Modi referred to China in slightly more functional terms while according the latter “high priority” in India’s foreign policy. He looked forward to welcoming President Xi Jinping in India and expressed a keenness to push relations forward based on a “strategic perspective of our development goals and long-term benefits to our people”. It remains to be seen if Modi chooses to be as effusive when Xi is here.
Lastly, Modi’s terse remarks on Pakistan confirm the new hiatus in India-Pakistan relations. He said he had a very good meeting with Nawaz Sharif in May but said Islamabad made a “spectacle” of India’s efforts to take relations forward by holding talks with “secessionist elements” from Jammu and Kashmir.
Indian and Pakistani diplomats will be relieved that Modi did not disavow future discussions on Kashmir. The PM said “India has no hesitation to discuss any outstanding issue with Pakistan within the bilateral framework that has been established under the Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration.” Clear articulation on the Simla Agreement may reassure Pakistani mandarins but it offers cold comfort to Nawaz Sharif who will still be aggrieved that Modi did not take a more discreet route to air his misgivings.