Modi’s diplo­matic charisma a sur­prise as In­dia pur­sues more clout on world stage


In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, once a pariah of the West and a sharp critic of Asian neigh­bors, has con­founded ex­pec­ta­tions with a re­lent­less diplo­matic charm of­fen­sive de­signed to raise In­dia’s stand­ing.

In his first 15 months in of­fice, the rightwing premier has trav­eled to some two dozen coun­tries, bur­nish­ing ties with al­lies and ri­vals alike in a cam­paign to en­sure In­dia punches its weight on the world stage and off­sets China’s rise.

Crit­ics say “Modiplo­macy” has yielded lit­tle and ac­cuse him of tak­ing his eye off do­mes­tic af­fairs as he strug­gles to en­act key re­forms.

But even op­po­nents ad­mit Modi has in­jected some vigor into In­dia’s pur­suit of the world stage.

As well as meet­ing lead­ers of heavy­weights such as the United States, Ger­many, Rus­sia, Brazil and main­land China, Modi has reached out to neigh­bors, be­com­ing the first In­dian leader to visit Sri Lanka in three decades.

He is also rolling out the red car­pet for smaller coun­tries, host­ing 14 heads of state from Pa­cific is­lands on Aug. 21 and a sum­mit with African lead­ers in Oc­to­ber.

Shashi Tha­roor, a min­is­ter in the pre­vi­ous Congress gov­ern­ment, says Modi has shame­lessly re­versed his stance on a host of for­eign pol­icy is­sues but ac­knowl­edges he brings “per­sonal energy” to the ta­ble.

“He is do­ing well, says the right thing in which­ever coun­try he goes to and leaves a pos­i­tive im­pres­sion,” Tha­roor, a for­mer U.N. deputy sec­re­tary gen­eral, told AFP.

Given Modi’s track record, few had an­tic­i­pated diplo­macy would be one of his top pri­or­i­ties.

He first drew the at­ten­tion of for­eign gov­ern­ments dur­ing a frenzy of com­mu­nal vi­o­lence in Gu­jarat soon af­ter be­com­ing chief min­is­ter in 2002. He was con­se­quently black­listed for a decade by the U.S. and Euro­pean Union.

Dur­ing last year’s elec­tion cam­paign, Modi bur­nished his cre­den­tials as a hard­line na­tion­al­ist by be­rat­ing China’s “ex­pan­sion­ist mind­set.”

But soon af­ter tak­ing power he in­vited main­land Chi­nese leader Xi Jin­ping for the first visit by a Chi­nese leader to In­dia in eight years be­fore his own visit to Bei­jing in May.

He has also ac­cepted an in­vi­ta­tion from his coun­ter­part Nawaz Sharif to at­tend a sum­mit in In­dia’s arch ri­val Pak­istan, another tar­get of his ire on the cam­paign trail.

C. Raja Mo­han, au­thor of a new book on Modi’s for­eign pol­icy, says the premier’s over­rid­ing goal is to “ex­pand In­dia’s sphere of in­flu­ence,” not least by join­ing China as a per­ma­nent United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil mem­ber.

A re­cent U.N. sur­vey pre­dicted In­dia’s pop­u­la­tion would sur­pass China’s by 2022 and its econ­omy is grow­ing faster than al­most all other ma­jor coun­tries.

Modi spent 13 years run­ning Gu­jarat, a coastal state with a rep­u­ta­tion as out­ward­look­ing and en­tre­pre­neur­ial.

“With Modi, I think that there is a Gu­jarati prag­ma­tism that dic­tates how to think about the world,” Mo­han told AFP.

“He is con­scious of In­dia’s changed po­si­tion in the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem, that In­dia can be a con­fi­dent player which is aware of its grow­ing weight in the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem.”

On his way back from China, Modi paid the first visit by an In­dian leader to Mon­go­lia, and dropped into five of the re­sourcerich Cen­tral Asian re­publics which have long-stand­ing re­la­tion­ships with Bei­jing.

An­a­lysts say sim­i­lar think­ing ex­plains Modi’s in­vi­ta­tion to the African and Pa­cific lead­ers, many of whom have re­ceived soft loans from China.

“If you look at his visit to Cen­tral Asia and the en­gage­ments with the Pa­cific Is­land na­tions and the Africa sum­mit, then you can say that China, re­sources and a gen­eral ef­fort to in­crease In­dia’s strate­gic foot­print are all com­mon threads,” an­a­lyst Ashok Ma­lik told AFP.

China has long cul­ti­vated ties with African coun­tries as it seeks re­sources that In­dia may also need as its de­vel­op­ment quick­ens.

“In­dia has his­tor­i­cally had good re­la­tions with Africa but lost out (to China) in the last 15-20 years,” said Ma­lik of Delhi’s Ob­server Re­search Foun­da­tion.

Modi’s greater in­volve­ment in South Asia is widely seen as a push­back against China’s over­tures to­wards In­dia’s neigh­bors, such as Sri Lanka.

In­dia won ku­dos in Nepal af­ter April’s earth­quake for its aid re­sponse, which dwarfed China’s.

De­mon­strat­ing his grow­ing self-as­sur­ance on the world stage, Modi is now more com­fort­able de­liv­er­ing speeches and talk­ing to his coun­ter­parts in English, af­ter ini­tially speak­ing only in Hindi.

S. Jais­hankar, In­dia’s for­eign sec­re­tary, says re­cent ini­tia­tives “speak of greater con­fi­dence.”

“Are we con­tent to re­act to events or should we be shap­ing them more, on oc­ca­sion even driv­ing them?” he asked in a speech.

“Per­haps it is time to re­assess our abil­ity to drive and lead on global is­sues, and be ac­tive and nim­ble rather than neu­tral or risk-averse.”

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