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BW Businessworld

At Home With Foreign Policies

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has surprised his own people as well as those abroad with his foreign policy initiatives. Considered a novice in foreign affairs when he took over, it is in this area that his impact has been the greatest during his first year in office.

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This is so even though in most areas his policies have not broken with those of his predecessor, Manmohan Singh: reinvigoration of ties with the US, political pragmatism and economic opening towards China, closer strategic and economic ties with Japan and a readiness to engage with Pakistan despite provocations. Singh too believed that India’s foreign policy should aim at creating the most favourable external environment for India’s economic growth. The qualities that set Modi apart from Singh are leadership, self-assurance and a strong personal imprint in the policies.

Unlike his predecessor, Modi has paid more attention to India’s neighbours, visiting Bhutan on his first foreign outing, followed later by Nepal. He has proclaimed a vision for SAARC and made some catchy proposals to enthuse members, such as a SAARC satellite. Through this he has tried to assert India’s benevolent leadership in the region. The rapidity and scale of Indian relief operations in Nepal after the earthquake testify to his energetic leadership. His visit to the Indian Ocean countries — Sri Lanka and, in particular, Seychelles and Mauritius, in March — indicated a more pronounced strategic sense of India’s interests in this maritime space. One could include his earlier visit to Fiji as a demonstration of his desire to cast India’s footprint in areas earlier neglected on the foreign policy front.

Modi’s decision to visit the US last year despite a prolonged visa denial showed a capacity to rise above personal feelings for a larger national goal. Inviting US President Barack Obama to be the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day celebrations speaks of imagination and a penchant to do the unexpected. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s personal gestures to Modi during his September 2014 visit to that country was a recognition of his stature and enhanced prospects of forging a stronger partnership with India under his leadership. Modi’s confident handling of Chinese President Xi’ Jinping’s visit to India showed a remarkable ability to strike a personal rapport, do practical business and stand his ground (on Chumar border dispute area) — as he did with Obama with a walkabout at the Martin Luther Jr King Memorial in Washington, talk over tea in New Delhi, breakthrough understandings on nuclear issues, pathfinder defence projects and firmness on the WTO-related food security issue. The US-India Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean announced during Obama’s India visit marked a clear desire to strengthen India’s strategic posture in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

Modi ensured that the December 2014 summit with Russia was successful in nuclear and defence cooperation. The Australian Prime Minister’s visit to India in September last year and Modi’s reciprocal visit within two months have strengthened ties between the two countries, with regard to strategic and economic gains, especially prospective uranium supplies from Australia — an objective that was achieved during Modi’s visit to Canada in April this year. The visit to France and Germany last month signalled that Europe remained a key partner of India on the defence and economic fronts, capped by the bold announcement of the Rafale deal in Paris and Modi’s personal presence at the Hannover Fair where India was the partner country.

In the US, Australia and Canada, Modi has been innovative in courting local Indian origin communities, enthusing them with his oratorical skills and signalling to all his democratic legitimacy as a popular leader.

Modi believes that the challenges before all countries are economic growth and prosperity of their peoples; avoidance of conflict is a natural corollary to this. Consequently, he has put India’s economic development at the core of his foreign policy and wants our missions abroad to accord priority to the mobilisation of external support for his major domestic programmes, whether it is Make in India in manufacturing, renewable energy goals, smart cities, digital India, clean Ganga, skills development and the like.

He has wooed foreign investors during his overseas visits, promising ease of doing business in India, establishing special cells in his office to facilitate investors from key countries, allaying concerns about India’s tax regime, which is perceived as unpredictable, and assuring improved regulatory mechanisms. He has offered to lay the red carpet for foreign investors instead of red tape. Instead of using the defensive language of poverty removal, Modi has been positive about offering to outsiders opportunities in a growing India.

Modi’s ascent to power has galvanised the foreign world’s interest in India as it sees in him a determined and decisive leader steering India towards ambitious development goals. Abe has promised to invest $35 billion in India in the next five years; China has promised $20 billion in the same period; with the US an investment initiative and an infrastructure collaboration platform have been unveiled, besides a two-way trade target of $500 billion.
 
But all clogs have not been cleared for foreign investment to flow into India. The gap between implementation and policy announcements remains and this is Modi’s big challenge, not to mention the bigger one of creating conditions that would persuade Indian investors to invest more at home.

The author is a former foreign secretary of India and former  ambassador to the US and Russia

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 18-05-2015)