Foreign policy: Modi brings style to substance

It is Mr. Modi’s ability to re-energise foreign policy with his flourishes that distinguishes his tenure

September 03, 2014 03:38 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:25 pm IST

Meticulous to a fault, the Japanese do not like sudden changes in programmes. Yet, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a change in his itinerary in Japan, arriving a day early to travel to the heritage temple city of Kyoto, they were delighted.

With that one stroke, Mr. Modi showed his desire to lift bilateral relations with Japan from a transactional one to something more holistic. “Amid all the B2B [business to business] and G2G [government to government] [interactions], he likes to find ways of establishing an H2H [heart to heart] relationship too,” said someone who helped organise international visits of Mr. Modi when he was Gujarat Chief Minister.

In 100 days at the helm of the Union government, Mr. Modi has introduced a leitmotif, bringing style to the substance of foreign policy. Though most of the announcements made on his international visits were in continuation of those during the visits of previous Prime Ministers, it is Mr. Modi’s ability to re-energise them with his flourishes that distinguishes his tenure.

For example, his visit to Nepal was hailed by every major newspaper in the hill nation, speaking of “Modi operandi” and “Modi magic mantra,” when in fact what Mr. Modi promised was keeping the promises India made in the past, from water agreements to construction projects. In Japan too, agreements on the Mumbai-Delhi and Chennai-Bangalore industrial corridors, the IREL-Toyota Tsusho rare earth deal and the nuclear agreement date back to 2010, but what Mr. Modi’s visit has done is inject hope that they may now be completed.

Another marker of his style of foreign policy has been the relegation of the External Affairs Ministry as a policy-maker. Each decision — let it be the invitation to SAARC leaders, cancellation of talks with Pakistan, prioritising of the neighbourhood with visits to Bhutan and Nepal or the refusal to sign the WTO agreement — bears Mr. Modi’s mark. It is clear from his interactions with almost 20 world leaders so far that he believes in the summit-style of diplomacy to resolve problems.

Mr. Modi’s forays into foreign policy are distinct for his reliance on multiple non-External Affairs Ministry inputs. In Nepal, he was advised by a leading local industrialist; on the U.S. visit, he is known to have delegated his public appearances in New York to NRI community groups; and in Japan, he took many of his ideas on the Kyoto initiative and boosting business sentiment from think-tanks that specialise on India-Japan ties, say sources. In all of these, Mr. Modi has made it clear he intends to communicate directly, dropping national and regional journalists from his plane. The Prime Minister’s only interactions on the ground have been an interview to a Japanese media delegation ahead of his visit there.

What is clear is Mr. Modi’s energetic 100 days in foreign policy will prove the base for a far more challenging next 100 days. In a few days, he will receive his first head-of-state bilateral visit with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, keen on finalising an agreement for Uranium, followed by his nearly back-to-back engagements with Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Obama. His speech at the United Nations General Assembly will be a key indicator of his world view and foreign policy plans for the future.

Finally, for the neighbourhood, the next 100 days will carry the burden of expectations that have arisen already: from signing power agreements with Nepal to the border and water-sharing agreements with Bangladesh. Sri Lanka will require some attention, even as Pakistan and Afghanistan remain embroiled in political turmoil. Towards the end of his next 100 days in office, Mr. Modi will meet SAARC leaders again at the summit of the group in Kathmandu. It may be best to judge how far his government has come at that point, as he comes full circle, engaging the very same leaders of the neighbourhood as he began his promising tenure with.

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