The greater stake a foreign government has in India the more hopeful it is that the stars of May 16 will align for Narendra Modi. This has little do with Modi himself. It has everything to do with the belief he is the only prime ministerial candidate who can form a stable, functional government in New Delhi.
While it may be woven in the fabric of the domestic debate over Modi, the fact is that the anti-Muslim riots of 2002 elicit minimal international interest. Governments are indifferent. A handful of human rights groups in the West have campaigned against Modi. The Western visa ban was the high watermark of their influence.
This is evident among Muslim governments. Representatives from key Persian Gulf countries regularly attended the post-riot Vibrant Gujarat summits.
The ambassadors of key Arab states point to Modi’s repeated statements that “I will follow the foreign polices of the Vajpayee led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.” Said diplomats from two Gulf states, “We had excellent relations with the first NDA government and so Modi doesn’t bother us.”
The Arab governments are not even concerned that, by all accounts, that Modi’s most favoured nation is Israel. They see a convergence between India’s two national parties when it comes to Israel — low profile, high density relations. In any case, Rahul Gandhi is known to be an admirer of the Jewish state.
The real cheerleaders for Modi are the East Asians.
Thanks to the West’s boycott, Modi’s foreign visits have been skewed in favour of Southeast Asia, Japan and China. He has wooed their investment and brought it to Gujarat. Hence their enthusiasm: they want to do business and he’s got a track record. Topping the list is Japan which has ambitious plans on the economic and strategic front with India. While PM Manmohan Singh is also a Japanophile, Tokyo hopes Modi will convert vision into concrete action.
It says something that Beijing is almost as desperate for a decisive Modi victory. That Chinese and Japanese officials, representing governments barely on speaking terms with each other, are hoping for the same thing is evidence of the overriding international desire for an India that works.
The new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, wants to stabilise his southern boundary at a time when he plans major economic reforms at home. Beijing has long felt that the shallowness of the Sino-Indian economic relationship — lots of trade but no investment — is one reason for its volatility. As China’s ambassador, Wei Wei, said recently Chinese foreign direct investment into India was “a far from satisfactory” $940 million.
Modi, Beijing believes, will be more confident about opening up to Chinese investment than the present Congress-led regime. While Modi has attacked Beijing during his campaign, Chinese officials say that his rhetoric was “standard” and did not alarm them.
The European governments have an even narrower focus: trade and investment. Many have noticed his call for the Indian external affairs ministry to focus on “trade treaties” rather than just strategic issues. They hope this reflects a sense of policy priority for the India-European Union free trade agreement, presently in negotiating limbo, is number one on their agenda.
That India’s trade treaty negotiations have ground to a halt across the board is a grouse of many foreign governments. It is not just the big daddy trading partners like Europe and the United States — it is also mercantile centres like Taiwan or Switzerland who are waiting for closure on half-negotiated trade pacts. The two problematic areas in the world when it comes to Modi are the US and the immediate Indian neighbourhood.
Washington was the last Western capital to re-engage with Modi and, in theory, has yet to revoke the visa ban. Modi has signalled that he will follow Vajpayee’s path “and this also applies to the relationship with the US.” Putting India’s economy back on the growth path would automatically improve relations with the US. The real challenge is that president Barack Obama is disinterested in any major US engagement with any part of the world. His indifference to India is less about Modi and more about his own isolationism.
Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and other smaller neighbours are also curious to see how Modi’s opposition to the Bangladesh land border agreement and his alliances with anti-Colombo Tamil parties will bleed into his foreign policies when in office. Most are optimistic that they will not.
After five years of India being the sick man of Asia, foreign governments seem universally to want New Delhi back on its feet. Seen as the only person who can do that, Modi becomes, by default the preferred candidate.