Mending fences: India reaches out to superpowers, neighbours

  • Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 26, 2014 11:07 IST

When Narendra Modi took oath as the prime minister, the received wisdom, even with those close to him, was India would look outward only fitfully. "Japan for investment, Israel for security and that's all," was the one-line summary.

Instead, the only thing certain about Modi's worldview is that it is an expanding universe. The tweet announcing a Republic Day invite to Obama was symbolic of a US relationship abuzz with potential big deals in defence, climate change and economic everything. Visa ban? What visa ban?

If there's a prime directive to a Modi doctrine it's that foreign policy is another lever to move the domestic economy. Will country X help set up state-of-the-art infrastructure and factories on Indian soil? Tokyo's plans for massive industrial corridors crisscrossing India are the perfect fit. But Modi's visit to Washington revolved around funneling US technology and finance to support the same cause. Hence his opening up to China and his known interest in Germany. Foreign partners for clean water, green energy and his social agenda are also being summoned to South Block.

Then there's the small neighbour policy. Modi privately believes India has not treated these countries well and this needs to change. The TV cameras may have trained on his Madison Square Garden performance , but an Indian leader getting rave reviews in Indophobic Nepal is the genuinely more Herculean task.

Pakistan and China are the real foreign policy tests of an Indian ruler. Here, Modi's maximum pragmatism, minimum strategy approach has struggled.

The prime minister has gone back and forth on Pakistan , trying to signal a willingness to engage but on tougher terms. So far it has largely confused Islamabad, a genuinely dangerous state of affairs. Fortunately, Pakistan is so engrossed with its own unique variety of political anarchy that there have been no major repercussions.

On China, Modi is prepared to be patient. He sees in Xi Jinping a person he can do business with, even if Beijing's managerial style is copied from The Godfather. Border intrusions, yes, but the Indian prime minister seems to see this more as blunt messaging or even evidence that Xi has issues on the home front.

The snail's pace of multilateral fora does not excite Modi and he much prefers the Big Bilateral. India's arguments for holding the world trade talks to ransom were dubious, but the world noticed New Delhi was unbothered by isolation on the international stage.

The prime minister's wooing of the Indian diaspora is also remarkable. The American diaspora, the richest and most entrepreneurial of the overseas Indian communities, has always been a prime ministerial photo-op. Meeting the Indians of Myanmar, among the poorest, indicates something is going on there. Given Modi does almost nothing without some domestic vibe involved, the diaspora policy may be a seed planted for later harvest. Again, Indian diplomats have traditionally argued the diaspora is simply too faction-ridden and fragmented to be of utility to New Delhi.

This may be Modi's foreign policy legacy. New Delhi has a tradition of ultra-cautious foreign policy. We never invited a US president to Republic Day, fearing it undermined nonalignment. We avoided signing up with certain other countries, fearing it would anger Beijing. The list goes on.

Modi, not so steeped in Delhi culture, isn't scared to dump the obsolete. He is also prepared to gamble, within reason. Unsurprising then that a hidebound foreign ministry is now marginalised.

The mandarins cringed at Modi standing alongside a mutant superhero, the Wolverine, in Central Park. But the prime minister also had Hugh Jackman carefully vetted and OK'd him only when the actor's file was declared spotless. More importantly, Modi understood that this was the sort of thing that would allow him to erase five years of Indian global regression. As the president of one of the US's largest think tanks said afterwards: "Many world leaders come to the United Nations General Assembly determined to change the global narrative about their country - Brazil, Turkey. Only Modi succeeded."

Instinctively, Modi recognises that if an Indian economy that already matches Russia's in dollar terms takes off under his watch, the country will develop a new set of global interests and a new foreign policy will be needed.

Full coverage: 6 months of Modi sarkar

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