He Could Make a World of Dif­fer­ence

Un­der Modi, there will be closer in­te­gra­tion of In­dian busi­ness and diplo­macy. The days of for­eign pol­icy be­ing left solely to Delhi’s diplo­matic corps are gone

The Economic Times - - World View - Rory Med­calf

In­dian vot­ers and for­eign ob­servers have been un­der­stand­ably fix­ated on Naren­dra Modi’s po­ten­tial to re­pair In­dia’s econ­omy and gov­er­nance. Less at­ten­tion has been paid to the pos­si­bil­ity that he might also prove a trans­for­ma­tive leader in In­dia’s re­la­tions with the world — un­til now.

Modi’s in­vi­ta­tion to South Asian lead­ers to at­tend his swear­ing-in cer­e­mony as In­dia’s prime min­is­ter was a pow­er­ful and re­fresh­ing ges­ture. It will com­pel his crit­ics to re­con­sider their as­sump­tions that his govern­ment will be bound by a nar­row na­tion­al­ism or an in­ward-look­ing con­cept of In­dia’s de­vel­op­ment.

Nor is his ex­ter­nal fo­cus limited to In­dia’s neigh­bour­hood. As the chief min­is­ter of Gu­jarat, Modi pushed the bound­aries of In­dian fed­er­al­ism, reach­ing out to great pow­ers, in­clud­ing Ja­pan and China. So as prime min­is­ter, he will not be deep­en­ing those vi­tal re­la­tion­ships from a stand­ing start.

Al­ready, he has made it clear that he wants closer in­te­gra­tion of In­dian busi­ness and diplo­macy. The days of In­dian for­eign pol­icy be­ing left solely to New Delhi’s skilled but ab­surdly un­dersi z e d d i p l o matic c o r p s are gone.

Modi’s demon­strated strengths so far lie in po­lit­i­cal mo­bil­i­sa­tion, do­mes­tic ad­min­is­tra­tion and eco­nomic man­age­ment. No­body knows pre­cisely how his vi­sion for man­ag­ing In­dia’s dif­fi­cult path through a chang­ing and com­pet­i­tive world will un­fold.

His for­eign pol­icy lead­er­ship will be tested by events. It is fright­en­ingly con­ceiv­able, for in­stance, that the wel­come pres­ence of Pak­istani PM Nawaz Sharif at Modi’s in­au­gu­ra­tion will re­dou­ble the de­ter­mi­na­tion of ji­hadist ter­ror­ists to shake In­di­aPak­istan re­la­tions. A ma­jor act of ter­ror­ism early in his term would test Modi’s abil­ity to man­age In­dia’s so­cial fab­ric as well as its se­cu­rity.

Yet it would be a mis­take to as­sume that in this or any other se­cu­rity cri­sis In­dia’s new leader would let na­tion­al­ist im­pulses pre­vail over state­craft.

In­deed, the fact that he is from the right of In­dian pol­i­tics gives Modi an ad­van­tage in steer­ing a sta­ble for­eign and de­fence pol­icy. Whether in a fu­ture cri­sis with Pak­istan or some fresh dis­pute with China on the bor­der is­sue, a Modi govern­ment would be well-po­si­tioned to re­sist do­mes­tic pres­sure for reck­less re­ac­tions. Since Modi can­not eas­ily be out­flanked on the right, he will have more scope than Man­mo­han Singh or even Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee had for pur­su­ing durable so­lu­tions with Pak­istan or China on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues. By the same to­ken, if and when the Modi govern­ment speaks in terms of de­ter­rence or as­sertive­ness, other na­tions’ start­ing point may well be to as­sume that he means it. The key here will be to en­sure that the new for­eign and de­fence pol­icy team has wis­dom, ex­pe­ri­ence and a sense of In­dia’s na­tional in­ter­est.

The Modi elec­toral land­slide — an un­prece­dented voter turnout leading to de­ci­sive change — was a sign of the con­fi­dence In­di­ans have in their demo­cratic sys­tem. It co­in­cides with an­other, qui­eter, demo­cratic revo­lu­tion: In­di­ans are be­com­ing more in­ter­ested in for­eign pol­icy.

So the new lead­er­ship in Delhi is likely to take into ac­count the pub­lic mood when it is for­mu­lat­ing how to deal with the world. In­dian pub­lic opin­ion about ex­ter­nal af­fairs is some­times sur­pris­ing and more so­phis­ti­cated than for­eign pol­icy elites might as­sume.

This was borne out in a rep­re­sen­ta­tive opin­ion poll of adult In­di­ans re­leased last year by Aus­tralian think tanks the Lowy In­sti­tute and the Aus­tralia In­dia In­sti­tute. The poll shows most In­dian vot­ers con­cerned about ter­ror­ism and Pak­istan as leading sources of threat to In­dia, yet a large pro­por­tion — 89% — is also of the view that or­di­nary people in both coun­tries want peace.

On de­fence pol­icy, too, most vot­ers have clear views. Ac­cord­ing to the poll, an overwhelming 95% see the pos­ses­sion of a strong mil­i­tary as very im­por­tant for In­dia to achieve its for­eign pol­icy goals.

The poll shows com­plex views on China. Most In­di­ans are un­der­stand- ably mis­trust­ful of what Chi­nese power means for their in­ter­ests. About two-thirds want In­dia to work with other coun­tries to limit China’s in­ter­ests, but a sim­i­lar pro­por­tion want co­op­er­a­tion with China — so some people want both. Rather than a con­tra­dic­tion, this may be a for­mula for Modi’s China pol­icy. There is much to be done to re­store the nar­ra­tive of In­dia as a ris­ing, con­fi­dent and sta­bil­is­ing force in the world. A good start would be for the Modi govern­ment to deepen re­la­tions with a web of part­ners that can of­fer a mix of eco­nomic, se­cu­rity and po­lit­i­cal ben­e­fits. Ja­pan is one place to start: Modi has a rap­port with Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe,andtheLowypoll­showed­con­sid­er­able warmth for Ja­pan and re­spect for its in­sti­tu­tions among the In­dian people. An­other, less ob­vi­ous, start­ing point could be an­other Asian democ­racy, In­done­sia. Like Aus­tralia, this coun­try is a log­i­cal part­ner for In­dia’s ex­pand­ing mar­itime se­cu­rity in­ter­ests. An Indo-Pa­cific part­ner­ship with Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity In­done­sia would re­in­force the mes­sage that Modi’s In­dia will be demo­cratic and in­clu­sive — abroad as well as at home.

The writer chairs the Aus­tralia-In­dia Round­table on be­half of the Lowy In­sti­tute and

the Aus­tralia In­dia In­sti­tute

Il­lus­tra­tions: ANIR­BAN BORA

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