Narendra Modi’s style of diplomacy was again showcased in Houston. It is audacious to replicate a personalised political rally in foreign soil, and few world leaders have the gumption to try it. However, the Indian prime minister revels in, and has perfected, this distinctive and new kind of diplomacy. Not that the entire credit should go to him. Some of the success was due to the work put in by the RSS since the Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s days to take the Hindutva message to the Indian diaspora in US and the UK. That the American-Indians could be used effectively by governments is well understood. Leading members of the Indian community had lobbied hard for the India-US civil nuclear agreement earlier.
More than 50,000 adoring NRIs packed a football stadium and feted the Indian Prime Minister. Chants of Modi, Modi, Modi rent the air, much like in a political rally in India. Saffron, the BJP colour, was evident everywhere, so was the Indian tri-colour and the US flag. The US President Donald Trump, who accepted Modi’s request to attend the event, was clearly dazzled by the spectacle. So was Britain’s David Cameron when Modi organised a similar do at the Wembeley Stadium in 2015 during his first visit as the PM to the UK. More than 18,000 British-Indians greeted him like a rock star. His first attempt to do it in the US was in 2014, at the New York’s Madison Square Garden. While the Indian diaspora can be effectively used, it can sometimes boomerang.
The optics was great. Back home, the supporters were impressed and overjoyed. It will resonate with young India and the loyalists would take it as a proof that India had arrived in the world stage. It will play wonderfully in domestic elections for the ruling BJP. Modi was greeted back home like a conquering hero. And he himself added to the narrative that India’s prestige had risen since he took office. Although, unlike Trump, he cleverly did not take the entire credit but put it on the shoulders of the 1.3 billion people of India. “fter assuming office in 2014, I went to the UN. I went to the UN even now. In these five years, I have seen a big change. The respect for India, the enthusiasm towards India has increased significantly. This is due to the 130 crore Indians.’’ For a man who was not allowed to enter the US and several Western capitals after the 2002 Gujarat riots, being feted by Indian-Americans, with Trump in attendance, was indeed an experience.
Modi’s style of diplomacy—bear hugs with world leaders, touchy-feely approach, and personal equation with leaders such as Trump, France’s Emmanuel Macron, China’s Xi Jinping, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin—could be deemed to be a personal success, but is that where it ends? Yes, Modi can pick up the phone and talk to anyone of these leaders if necessary. But beyond that the world of diplomacy is much too complicated for personal equations to matter. It is now established that nations don’t have permanent friends, only permanent interests.
Modi broke diplomatic protocol in Houston by endorsing Trump for the 2020 presidential elections. Officials are now quibbling and pointing out it was not so. But that impression has gone out and Trump’s loyalists have seen it as an endorsement. This is a big no-no for the old school of diplomatic protocol. Possibly this was not on the cards and Modi did it without taking advice from either the foreign minister or the battery of professional diplomats of the ministry. Considering that chances of Trump being impeached are growing, he could well have kept out of this debate. But Trump, angling for the India-American voters who normally back the Democrats, would have been mighty pleased.
The US trip has worked well for Modi personally, proving once more his popularity with the Indian diaspora. But beyond that what did this razzmatazz bring for the nation? Unless, of course, the CEOs he met at the Houston roundtable bring in the money and technology that India desperately needs to create jobs and get the economy back in shape. A trade deal that was expected, with Piyush Goel flying in to join the PM’s delegation, did not materialise. It is unfair to quibble about it as trade negotiations are tough and Indians are known to be as hard-nosed negotiators as the Americans. The deal will happen for sure, but sometime in the future.
INFORMAL SUMMIT : HIGH ON OPTICS
The informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping spread over Friday and Saturday (October 11-12) was high on optics but low on substance. All the right noises were made by both leaders and the visuals of the two walking around Mamallapuram as well as the cultural show with the Shore temple in the background were spectacular. But beyond the easy camaraderie between Modi and Xi there was little to show for the six hours they spent together. As mentioned earlier personal relationships can deliver only up to a point.Yes, Xi promised to once again look to narrowing the massive trade deficit between the two countries. India has long been pushing China for opening up the market for Indian pharma and other products. Promises were made also in Wuhan, yet on the ground little has changed. This time finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her Chinese counterpart will be meeting at a future date to take a closer look at what can be done. Earlier talks were at the official level but perhaps ministerial talks at the direction of the PM and President would work better. That is for the future to prove.
Prime Minister Modi, extremely good at selling ideas is now talking about the Chennai Connect as follow up to the Wuhan Spirit.It is now clear that informal summits between the two Asian leaders will now be a regular feature. The next one is expected to be held in China. These meetings, where the leaders spend quality time with each other, helps in clearing the air and is designed to dispel the distrust and misconceptions each country has about the other. That is good thing, no one can object to such meetings.
One positive that the MEA is putting out is that Kashmir was not raised. Though Kashmir is for the moment very much in focus and China has been forcefully backing Pakistan’s position, Xi did not raise it. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, briefing reporters after the summit said Kashmir did not come up as China knows it is an internal problem. Yet, days ahead of Xi’s visit to India, Prime Minister Imran Khan flew down to Beijing to brief China once again on the situation in Kashmir following the revocation of Article 370. In the joint statement issued after the visit, China said that it was keeping a close watch on Kashmir and hoped that the issue should be resolved peacefully “ based on UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council and bilateral agreements.’’ This had needled India on the eve of talks. But India is not too concerned about China’s support for Pakistan. So long as it keeps it at the level of speaking up for its allay, New Delhi can take it. After all India has also irked China and made its position clear on going ahead with the “Quad,’’ war games near the China border in Arunachal Pradesh and frequent statements on freedom of movement in the South China Sea with China in mind. The “quad’’ signifies the defence co operation between India-US-Australia and Japan , the four democracies to ensure that the Indo-Pacific which includes the Indian Ocean, though which much of the world trade takes place allows for smooth movement. China regards this as containment. So both India and China know the score.
Modi’s confidence is soaring. The huge 300-plus mandate in the May 2019 elections despite indications to the contrary has bolstered his self belief. What wove wonderfully into the BJP’s narrative of strong leadership and hyper nationalism was the tough stand against Pakistan. The February 14, 2019, Pulwama attack and the Balakot air strike played up Modi’s image as a decisive leader, capable of not just keeping India safe but of teaching Pakistan a lesson. The days following Balakot and the dog fight the next day raised nationalistic sentiments to a new level. This certainly helped the BJP. But there is a danger: Modi cannot allow such machismo to become overly-adventurous in dealing with the neighbour.
Scholars have tried to analyse Modi’s diplomacy during his first term in terms of Hindutva ideology. They have not, surprisingly, found any connections. In 2014, many expected Modi to inculcate a hardline agenda in foreign policy. He didn’t. This was despite the fact that before the 2014 national election, Modi said that “my Hindutva face will be an asset when dealing with foreign affairs with other nations”. According to Arndt Michael of the University of Freiburg (Germany), for many this statement indicated “a strict ideological, assertive foreign policy posture that put India first in all her future engagements”.
However he concluded, “Yet an analysis of five years… reveals changes in direction and scope, but no traits of strict adherence to a genuine Hindutva ideology or any ideology for that matter.” He added, “Indian foreign policy has not seen a complete or radical transformation in terms of becoming a new Hindutva-guided foreign policy. Modi did try to connect foreign policy with Indian values by stressing civilisational and religious ties with South and Southeast Asia, and by focusing on yoga and especially the Indian diaspora. Still, there was, in fact, continuity in Indian relationships with great powers and her extended neighbourhood.”
The first five years of Modi’s diplomacy marked an attempt to establish him firmly and strongly in the new world order. In a multi-polar world, where the US no longer has a hegemony and needs to talk as an equal with the Eurozone, China, Russia, and possibly Japan, India, supported by other emerging nations in Latin America and Africa, can play a crucial role in the near future. Modi realised that having a personal rapport with the leaders of these nations was important. For, in the future, the bonhomie could lead to key initiatives. Now that India is an intrinsic part of the new world order, it is time to act.
Hence, from the beginning, Modi 2.0 diplomacy was dramatically different. This time around, within months of winning the elections, the government delivered on its election promise to abrogate the special status of Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority state. The August 5 decision was by and large welcomed by most Indians. As Modi himself pointed out at his Houston rally, the bill was passed without a hitch in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP does not have a majority. Kashmir was divided, with Ladakh as a separate Union Territory.
For the moment, the international community has accepted India’s argument that the change of the status is an internal issue. India has told the world that terrorism directed from Pakistan was to be blamed for the situation in Kashmir. Foreign minister S Jaishankar said at a Asia Society meeting, while in New York accompanying Modi, “I think, for Pakistan, it was a country which has really created an entire industry of terrorism to deal with the Kashmir issue. ..So there is today a reaction of anger, of frustration in many ways, because you have built an entire industry over a long period of time.” He added that the problem for Pakistan “is not a Kashmir issue but a bigger issue…. Pakistan has to accept that the model which they have built for themselves no longer works.” It was yet another hint of the emergence of a new world.
This will be the gist of India’s diplomatic thrust while explaining the prevailing tense situation in Kashmir. The other related point echoed by Indian diplomats was that terrorism and the old political system in Kashmir had held the state back, and the government’s recent actions would make it prosperous. And that Kashmir is India’s internal problem, and if Pakistan stopped meddling, the situation would get back to normal.
The rest of the world, besides Pakistan and China, accepted the abolition of Article 370. While the government carefully crafted its plans to revoke it, what it has in place for the future is not known. During Modi’s recent meeting with Trump in New York, the former is said to have asked for time to roll out a plan of action to get Kashmir back to normal. Though none of this came out in the public discourse, it slipped through when senior State Department official Alice Wells told reporters at the sidelines of the UN General Aseembly: “We look forward to the Indian government’s resumption of political engagement with local leaders and the scheduling of the promised elections at the earliest opportunity.”
She added, “President Trump has a strong relationship with both Imran Khan (Pakistan’s leader) and Narendra Modi. The world would benefit from reduced tension and increased dialogue between the two. US is concerned about widespread detentions in Kashmir. We hope Indian government will resume engagement with Kashmir leaders.” She concluded, “PM Modi made a commitment that recent changes will improve lives of Kashmiri people. We look to him to uphold that promise.” The world has given India a long rope on Kashmir but the government needs to work towards normalising the situation. Beginning a dialogue with the people is the way ahead. Amid detention and restrictions, local council elections have been announced for October 24. It will be a huge setback if the people of Kashmir fail to support it and participate in them.
Demonising Pakistan is fine for the domestic audience but India has got into a trap by constantly harping on that. New Delhi’s efforts, spurred on by a pliant media, are resulting in placing India and Pakistan into the sub-continental box. Since the 1991 economic reforms, and the subsequent rise of India’s economic clout, successive governments in New Delhi have worked hard to de-hyphenate the country from Pakistan. Earlier, both countries were generally clubbed together by the rest of the world. But with countries wooing India for its huge market and Pakistan getting closely associated with terror, the international community’s tendency at twining the two changed. India was seen by the world as a rising economic power even as Pakistan was ridden with huge problems.
Suddenly, Kashmir gave Pakistan the opportunity to change the narrative. The latter is no longer regarded as a pariah state by the US and, therefore, the rest of the Western world. That Trump needs Pakistan’s support for stabilising Afghanistan is a given. It was precisely for this that the US-Pakistan thaw began. Prime Minister Imran Khan has succeeded in building goodwill for his administration with the US. And during his speech at the UN General Assembly, Khan spoke with passion about the plight of the people in the Valley. India may have dismissed the speech as a vitriolic hate one against Modi, but it resonated with many Americans, who were aware about the lockdown in the valley through media reports.
However, one needs to mention that the Kashmir abrogation has, in a single stroke, ejected Pakistan permanently out of the equation. Kashmir is an Indian state, as any other. For the rest of the world Article 370 is not important. Unless, of course, if the Labour Party replaces Boris Johnson in the UK. Jeremy Colby went a step ahead of the US Democratic candidate, Bernie Sanders on the Kashmir issue. Colby is not just talking of human rights but Article 370 as well. The Labour Party conference in Brighton in September 2019 passed a resolution supporting intervention in Kashmir. The resolution “calls on the Labour Party, the government in waiting, to clearly and vocally support the Kashmiri people’s right to self-determination and for international observers to be sent to the region immediately. The resolution also calls for an intervention of the party at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).” It seems that some British-Indians, who support the BJP, have threatened that the community would not vote for Labour, if the party insisted on restoration of Article 370. This is not a healthy sign.
So far, Modi has managed ties with China. The Wuhan informal summit succeeded in re-setting India-China ties post-Doklam. The developments in Kashmir introduced another point of friction. China has succeeded in getting the UN Security Council to take up Kashmir in closed door discussion at the start of the September session. Much will depend on how the Modi-Xi Jinping summit goes off In October 2019. Xi will possibly not wish to rock the boat too much at a time when the US and China are in the middle of a trade war.
The US-India relations are relatively on an upswing. At the same time, the India-US-Japan-Australia pact is being upgraded. At the sidelines of the UNGA, foreign ministers of the four Indo-Pacific quadrilateral held a meeting. China regards it as an alliance to contain its growing military clout in the Asia-Pacific waters. Earlier, New Delhi wanted to keep the meeting at the senior official level so as not to aggravate China. This time, however, India gave the nod for an upgrade to the ministerial meeting, in an obvious bid to check China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region.
India believes in freedom of navigation and a loose co operative defence arrangement in the Indo-Pacific (meaning the Pacific and Indian Oceans), with ASEAN nations forming the core to ensure smooth flow of trade in the Pacific waterways. Meanwhile, military exercises like Malabar, between US-India and Japan have been institutionalised since Modi’s first term in office. All this gives India and Modi a better handle to deal with China.
Modi’s major foreign policy success was in dealings with the Gulf sheikhdoms. He has assiduously courted both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as also Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. The Manmohan Singh’s governments began the outreach to Riyadh by inviting King Abdullah to be the chief guest on Republic Day. From his first term in office, Modi made it a point to visit the Gulf kingdoms. No other prime minister has worked so tirelessly to forge political and economic ties with the sheikhdoms. The fact that none of these Muslim countries have publicly supported Pakistan on Kashmir is a feather on the PM’s cap. This would have been impossible a few years ago. Earlier, in any India-Pakistan stand offs, the Gulf countries spoke up on Kashmir and backed Pakistan. Modi’s personal diplomacy has changed that equation.
During a visit to India in February this year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he expected investment opportunities worth more than a $100 billion in India over the next two years. And, on August 12, a week after India revoked Kashmir’s special status, Saudi state owned Aramco signed a $15 billion deal to buy 20 per cent stake in Reliance Industries. Modi was accorded the highest civilian award for his contribution to boosting ties with the UAE. Though the award was announced in April, Modi picked it up on August 24, during a short visit to the country. Relations with the Gulf Co operation countries are likely to be further enhanced.
Back in 2014, Modi’s neighbourhood first policy was not new. South Asian countries have always been important, but enunciating it as he did with the catch phase of neighbourhood first, gave it a much needed zing. He tried it with Pakistan, but failed not because of his fault or Nawaz Sharif’s, but because the Pakistan military had other ideas. In Nepal, Modi was a hot favourite until New Delhi decided to take up cudgels for the Indian-origin Madesis. The transport blockade that followed was a disaster. It made New Delhi unpopular. Though India never acknowledged that it was behind the blockade and blamed the truckers who refused to travel to Nepal because of the law and order problem, Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Oli squarely blamed India. For landlocked Nepal dependent heavily on India for basics including kerosene, petrol, cooking gas and medicine, India became an object of anger. Oli turned to China.
The elections in 2017 gave Oli and the Communist coalition a massive majority. India has tried to make amends but China is now entrenched in Nepal. New Delhi has not completely lost out, but suspicion remains. Luckily for India, the terrain on the Nepal-China side of the border is extremely harsh, and transporting goods from China doubles the costs. Modi made a personal visit to Nepal soon after Oli returned to power. Special prayers were held at the Pashupatinath Nepal. Ties with Nepal are now much improved, but China remains an important player.
In the Maldives and Sri Lanka too, China’s footprints are extensive. Luckily, in the recent past, Beijing has lost its diplomatic clout for several reasons in both the countries. None of it was India’s doing but New Delhi heaved a sigh of relief when the ties with both went back on track. Significantly, Modi’s first foreign visit in his second term was to the Maldives and Sri Lanka, signalling his government’s determination to re-build ties with both the island nations.
Although the compilation and updating the National Register of Citizens is not a diplomatic issue, what happens to the 1.8 million people left out of the list in Assam does become one. The exact numbers left out after the final round of appeals is likely to be much less, considering that the BJP has already made it clear that no Hindus will be deported. But what happens to the Muslims declared foreigners? Will they be sent back to Bangladesh? Dhaka has always maintained that it will not take in deportees, unless they can prove they are from Bangladesh. Most of those affected are poor and illiterate, and without any documents to prove whether they are Indians or Bangladeshis.
Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina raised this issue with Modi when they met on the sidelines of the UNGA. The latter is said to have reassured her that Bangladesh will not be affected. So, what will be the status of those declared foreigners? Will they be kept in camps under guard, subject to constant harassment by locals, like the fate of the Rohingyas in Buddhist majority Myanmar? Will they become the nowhere people of Assam?
To conclude, one can say that Modi has concretised India’s relations with the world powers in a multi-polar world. At a personal level, he is close to Trump and Putin. India has re-ignited the ties with Moscow, especially when the country reeled under western sanctions over Ukraine. In the caseof China, there is a two-step forward, one-step backward ties. However, as long as Moscow and Washington are on New Delhi’s side, Beijing will not attempt to do something drastic to spoil the relations.
Modi’s friendship with Sheikhs changes the balance of world power, since the latter still have consider oil power and oil money to wield. Within the neighbourhood, it seems a zero-sum game. Pakistan has got a revival to emerge as an international player. Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh are close and yet quite distant in some ways. The next four years will determine if this will indeed be the Asian century.
COVER STORY / Foreign Policy / by Seema Guha