A lot has been said and written about Narendra Modi’s latest visit to the United States. Narendra Modi is India’s newest, and one of its most charismatic prime ministers, an accolade he shares with few others, except perhaps India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Few have been elected to India’s high office by such a sweeping margin.
Currently, Prime Minister Modi enjoys tremendous popularity and support in India. He has been elected to power largely based on the mandate to ‘clean up’ the Indian political system and cut back on the ‘red tape,’ especially the inefficient bureaucracy that has made conducting business difficult in India. India ranks an appalling 134 out of 189 countries on the “Ease of Conducting Business” which was calculated by the World Bank. India’s rank for 2014 is down by 3 points as compared to its rank in 2013. Furthermore, the stats are even more depressing. India ranks 179 in the criteria of starting a new business and 186 for enforcing contracts. These numbers are not indicative of a rising economic power, or a major regional power in Asia. Modi’s mandate is to uplift India global image, especially in the economic sector. Modi’s experience as the Chief Minister (aka Governor) of Gujarat reveals a successful track record in implementing a successful economic policy, opening up the state for investments, and overall making it easy to conduct and maintain a business. India has hope that Modi will come through on the economic front. High hopes.
This frenzy has deflected from another equally, if not more important, issue of India’s foreign policy, especially with respect to security, both internal and external. On this issue, Modi’s track record is less stellar. It is almost universally known that Narendra Modi was the reigning Chief Minister of India when the 2002 Godhra riots between the Hindus and the Muslims broke out in the state of Gujarat. Critics accuse him of mishandling the riots as well as being unable to contain the massacre. Modi, who is now enjoying US hospitality, was unable to enter the United States for over a decade; he was denied a visa due to his association with the riots. He has of course, been acquitted by the Supreme Court of India of any wrongdoing in the Godhra riots. He has also been largely acquitted by the people who voted him into office. His ability to tap into Gujarat’s entrepreneurial spirit and turn around its economy inspired Indians and they hope he will be able to achieve the same miracle for all of India.
Much less is known about Modi’s philosophy on India’s foreign policy. We have seen mere snippets of his views in his last four months in office. Modi promptly welcomed the prime minister of neighboring Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, for his oath taking ceremony and recently hosted the president of China, Xi Jinping for an economic summit. By all accounts, the summit proceeded excellently due to mutual interests between the two politicians, until Modi called out Xi Jinping for not seeking to control cross – border incidents and violence in the state of Assam. The end was rather unpleasant. However, it showcased to all Indians as well as the world that Modi was willing to act tough on matters of India’s security and that he was not willing to play second fiddle to China because of the possibility of billions in investment projects and bilateral trade between the two countries. Indians appreciated this move. Slowly but surely, he is winning hearts and minds and converting critics into believers.
Modi’s trip to the United States has been successful so far. All major national publications such as the New York Times as well as media outlets like NPR have discussed his impact in speeches at the United Nations General Assembly, Madison Square Garden and Central Park. He has been compared to a rock star, enthralling full capacity audiences in New York and mouthing popular catchphrases such as the “May the Force be with you” while sharing a stage with Hugh Jackman at Central Park.
Modi has been outspoken in his views regarding problems that plague India as well as in proposing possible solutions. With plenty of news coverage providing a nuanced view of his every move, you would hope that the country is well informed on their leader’s views vis-à-vis India’s foreign security policy. Yet, this is where Modi remains an enigma.
Modi’s cabinet consists of a few hand-picked members who have managed the herculean task of earning his trust. Modi has combined important ministries to reduce bureaucratic inefficiency. He has also awarded the tremendously important ministries of Finance and Defense to the same person, Arun Jaitley, a longtime confidante which caused speculation that Modi had awarded the crucial ministries of Finance and Defense to one of the few colleagues who had earned his trust, and that he wanted to closely manage them himself. He had no intention of parting with these crucial cabinet positions. It also pointed to the opaque exterior of Modi’s intentions with regard to India’s foreign security policy.
In the last four months, India has had a few significant snapshots of Modi’s interactions with foreign leaders and dignitaries. At all times, Modi has held his own; each foreign trip has been deemed a success. Each foreign trip has been a source of pride for Indians where Modi is focused on changing India’s global image.
Modi has also deftly balanced India’s commitments abroad. His first foreign trip was to India’s neighboring state of Bhutan, a struggling state that is often forgotten and lost within the geography of South Asia. His second visit was to another smaller neighbor, Nepal. The adage that your character is best reflected by what you do for people who have no way of repaying you might be applied here. The asymmetric bilateral ties between India and Bhutan/Nepal have never been a priority for India’s foreign policy. Yet, by beginning his diplomatic journey in these states, Prime Minister Modi catapulted India’s relationship with its smaller and less powerful South Asian neighbors into significance and possibly quelled any fears of India’s intentions to interfere in their domestic affairs. As a regional hegemon and the most powerful state in South Asia, India has often witnessed balancing against it by other states in the region. It can also be argued that Modi wanted to start his foreign trips to less significant states where mistakes would not be catastrophic. Nevertheless, he seemed intent to deliver early on one of his foreign policy principles, neighborhood first.
Modi’s next foreign visit was to Brazil followed by Japan. While Japan may be an obvious choice due to its significance to India’s economy, as well as its ability to act as a potential ally in balancing against China in Asia, Modi’s early trip to Brazil is far more perplexing. This is a perfect instance of Modi’s deft balancing of India’s interests abroad; while forging closer ties with close neighbors; Modi recognizes the potential for bilateral ties between states like Brazil and India. Newly emerging and rapidly growing economies primarily rely on advanced industrial states to find export markets. There exists a huge, untapped potential for rapidly growing economies to forge closer ties in respect to trade and investment and to start to see each other in a complementary way, rather than as competing economies. By recognizing this, Modi has shown a clear vision with regard to India’s economic future.
Modi’s latest mission to the United States is so far the greatest test of his abilities as a statesman and leader. He may hold obvious grudges against America’s leadership for being slighted in the past. However, he must put any hurtful sentiments aside, and focus on engaging the United States of America that seems content to view India as an acquaintance or a distant relative, not a close ally. Modi has the not-so-difficult task of convincing the United States of India’s desire and ability to forge closer diplomatic and security ties, and to aid in the war against terrorism. I refer to it as a not so difficult task because any politician worth his salt should be able to identify the common ground shared by two of the world’s largest democracies. As stated above, Modi’s trip so far has been successful. He has managed to consistently deliver the message that India is poised to welcome entrepreneurship and economic opportunities.
The one exception to the ‘economics reign supreme’ message consistently delivered by Modi was his speech to the UNGA, where he emphasized the need for a coalition of states to stand together against the various forms of conflict and terror threats facing the world today. India has been long victimized by internal and external terrorism, and Modi wants India to contribute to a global coalition against terrorism. He also spoke on health and human concerns that continue to plague India, and serve as a common ground between India and developing states around the world. It seems that Modi wants to forge a network of ties, wherever and whenever possible. He realizes that states can deal with common problems more efficiently by working together.
Once again, while Modi has made impressive strides with respect to foreign policy decisions, his stance on India’s security concerns and possible courses of action remains opaque. He has repeatedly called for broader and deeper engagement to soothe troubled relationships such as the one India shares with Pakistan. His decision to invite Pakistan’s leadership for the oath taking ceremony was widely unpopular and criticized. However, Modi managed to successfully maneuver a delicate situation, and was left better for it.
A better indication of Modi’s stance on security issues are the visits by high profile dignitaries to India in the first 100 days of the Modi government. Several states including Israel dispatched high-level diplomats and envoys soon after the new government took office. According to a report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), India remains the world’s largest arms importer, followed by China and Pakistan. The global arms exports market is primarily dominated by Russia and the USA; however, it is increasingly diversifying to include European states as well as Israel.
Modi’s foreign policy principles include a broader and deeper engagement with neighboring states in South Asia, while simultaneously balancing India’s interests globally by continually making headway in India’s relations with major players such as the United States, China, Japan etc. While the Modi government has preserved continuity in India’s foreign policy, its handling of security issues remains to be seen. Modi’s image of being a hardliner will probably serve him well in responding to strategic crises. Crises of such a nature have repeatedly occurred in the last few years with the neighboring states of Pakistan and China. The UPA government led by Dr. Manmohan Singh was considered to be weak and inept at providing a decisive response against frequent border infiltrations by troops as well as terrorists.
Elections can often sweep in new ideas, new blood and new energy. India’s latest round of elections has brought to power a radically different approach to governance than the last few years, which were mired in corruption, scandals and mismanagement of resources. In breaking with the past, the Modi government has emphasized economic development, while underplaying the significance of foreign policy in India’s growth trajectory. He has consciously attempted to balance India’s bilateral ties with multilateral cooperation.