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Shastri Ramachandaran | 25 MAY, 2015

Acche Din One Year Later: Hard to Say Where The Show Ends And Policy Comes Into Play

PM Narendra Modi in Brisbane, Australia


THE CITIZEN brings to you a review of one year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is the second in the series, with senior journalist and foreign policy expert Shastri Ramachandaran placing the PM’s foreign travels in perspective.

NEW DELHI: In his first year as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has travelled far and wide, to as many as 17 countries. From the Americas and Europe in the West to China, Japan and even Mongolia in the East. Yet there is nothing definitive by way of ‘Foreign Policy’ that has emerged from his overseas travels or meetings with foreign dignitaries at home.

The main objective of India’s foreign policy, presumably, would be to promote India’s economic development, and towards that mobilise resources and create the required security, stability and strategic advantages through partnerships and pacts in the region and further afield.

Modi, as his own foreign minister, has journeyed much. Has he gone further than his predecessor in advancing national interest and development? It is hard to answer this in the affirmative in the absence of a policy outline.

In many ways, on a phoren trip, Modi is no different from any other Indian or desi politician. It is first and foremost a ‘trip’ in the ‘enjoy’ sense. In the case of Modi, he is at his best, living it up and revelling in the moment. He is out to make a splash; extrovert, cheerful and suitably curious; and, clothes for all occasions, reasons and seasons in a designer wardrobe, which only a Prime Minister can afford. Game to try his hand at anything to please his hosts, Modi loves to be “mobbed” by NRIs, in the US, China or Australia. The showmanship is faithfully captured in selfies for the benefit of the great unwashed at home. It is hard to say where the show ends and the policy comes into play.

His last, “Act East”, foray – to China, Mongolia and South Korea – was preceded by great expectations. China – like the US and South Asia -- is central to the defining of India’s foreign policy. There was much hype – in China and India – about the meeting of “two strong leaders” and the “strong decision” expected on the boundary dispute. Yet Modi – as much as President Xi Jinping – failed to go beyond the routine to address the strategic differences.

During his three-day visit from May 14-16, Modi “stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership”. This means that no step could be taken to minimise India-China distrust, which is necessary for progress on the boundary issue. Modi did not appear very pleased with the outcome of his visit to China because from there he went to Mongolia, which he hailed as a “true friend”. Was this to rile Beijing? Or, was it an oblique reference to the missing warmth during his visit?

India’s relations with the US -- which for long had denied a visa to Modi on account of the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat under his watch as Chief Minister in 2002 – have not particularly improved after he became Prime Minister. Like any head of government, he was keen to meet the US President and he did so in the US in September 2014. The meeting seemed to be for the simple purpose of showing that he had acquired ‘visa power’ and was welcome in the US. The only other outcome of the visit was a Vision Statement in which Barack Obama and Modi affirmed that they “will prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and remain committed to reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, while promoting universal, verifiable, and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament”.

In a bid to take this tie further, Modi invited Obama as the Republic Day guest this year. After all the contortions he put himself through to please Obama, the man left with parting kick about religious intolerance in India; a theme he harped on again after his return to the US. So much for Modi’s presumptions about being on first-name terms with Obama.

It remains to be seen whether India has fallen between two stools – the US and China – or is out to make the most of its ties with both. India has not signed on to join hands with the US and its East Asian allies against China. Nor is Modi confrontational with China although he sees his ‘bonding’ with Japan giving him the upper hand.

Modi has been to more summits and met more world leaders within a year of assuming office than any other Prime Minister before him. He has attended some of the most important multilateral and regional forums and met leaders of all the neighbouring countries.

Yet for all the rhetoric of “neighbours first”, in the absence of a policy thrust – both China and the US have more influence in South Asia than India. The heads of SAARC governments were – in a first – invited and given pride of place at Modi’s swearing-in. This does not seem to have lined up the South Asian nations behind India in SAARC or other forums. At the SAARC Summit in Nepal, India was ditched by its neighbours with more of them rooting for a greater role to China -- not at all flattering to India’s self-perception as a “Rising Power”. Rushing to Nepal’s rescue after the earthquake has not done much for India-Nepal relations either.

Symbolic actions such as Modi choosing Bhutan for his first foreign visit has not yielded any results in the neigbourhood. It did not deter a classic US-led western regime-change in Sri Lanka. Relations with Pakistan are no better than before. To the contrary, they have worsened after India called off bilateral talks. Pakistan is none the worse for it, as both the US and China are tied to it for a variety of strategic reasons that extend to Afghanistan and beyond. Maldives, like Sri Lanka, is slipping out of India’s “zone of influence” despite Sirisena and Modi visiting each other. In sum, the notion of India as thedominant power and influence in South Asia could be just that – a notion.

Doubtless, Modi’s travels, bilateral exchanges and meetings have produced countless agreements, MoUs and pledges for billions of dollars towards infrastructure, power, rail and other projects. Unless the money comes in and the results are evident for all to see, skepticism about Modi’s achievements on the foreign front are bound to persist.

It is in the first year that any promising leader sets the agenda for the rest of his term. After the first 12 months a new leader begins losing his political edge over his opponents. However, Modi can hope to retrieve lost ground because his opponents are no match for him, yet.

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