Millennium Post

PM Modi’s soft power strategy

In his book “Diplomacy”, which was published in 1994, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote that India has yet to assume “a role commensurate with its size on the international political stage”. At the risk of antagonising Nehru loyalists and many retired diplomats, it may well be concluded that until the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, no serious efforts were undertaken to overcome this inertia. Nothing happened in the two years after former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao lost in 1996. A series of weak coalition governments was followed by the six-year reign of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government. Under the previous NDA government, some effort was made to propel our foreign policy initiatives forward. Subsequently, under the ten-year rule of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, some follow-up work was achieved. Although former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 10-year reign reached its peak during the signing of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, what followed was a massive downturn. The failure to build on the nuclear deal was largely down to Singh’s lack of political authority. Until Narendra Modi, an upstart to the Lutyen’s Delhi scene, took office, there was no visible policy initiative.

In the reputed journal Foreign Affairs, Peter Martin wrote in January 2015, “India has long seemed unable or unwilling to become a major player on the world stage. But the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is looking to change all that.”And to do so Modi had to rewrite the diplomatic code book, causing heartburn among the established power brokers in Delhi. The novice ‘regional’ politician began dramatically by inviting the heads of neighboring states to his swearing in ceremony. In one master stroke, he drew international attention to himself.

The circumstances demanded that the new Indian Government acts urgently. The Manmohan Singh Government was effectively a lame duck, especially during its second term. Various corruption scandals and Singh’s lack of authority had hurt India’s image at a time when the global economy was in turmoil. India lost its position as a viable destination for investment. What’s more, the economic policies of Pranab Mukherjee and then P Chidambaram, both Finance Ministers in the UPA government, did not display the deft handling that was required. Interest rates were jacked up, infrastructure projects remained half finished with investment drying up and approvals were delayed, resulting in rising costs. Banks started to reel under piles of bad loans. To complicate matters further former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, before assuming the post of President of India, moved ahead to amend the Income Tax Act with retrospective effect, following which foreign firms had to pay additional taxes. It was an unfortunate decision from a veteran politician who was not new to the finance portfolio. The Indian economy Modi inherited was in a terrible state.

Narendra Modi won the mandate with his message of hope. The Indian economy badly needed investment to get out of such a quagmire. Banks had little option of providing fresh loans. In any case, Indian corporations had no means to seek additional finance, overstretched as they were due to overexposure in many stalled projects. Modi needed to re-rail the economy along the growth path in the shortest possible time. The only option was to quickly reposition India as a choice destination for global investors. Not only did Modi have to recast the domestic economic policy, but also highlight these changes to his target audience. As the CEO of the Team India, Modi had to take up the role of the chief salesman. It was expected by his detractors that “Modi, the village bumpkin” would fail miserably in his efforts. They thought that attracting suave foreign investors was a different proposition from enticing poor and rustic voters. They were right. Excellence in vote catching is not synonymous with excellence in winning foreign direct investments (FDI). As Manmohan Singh has shown, erudition in economics is neither necessary nor a sufficient condition to attract FDI. Sadly for his detractors Modi proved so successful that even the hitherto unquestioned supremacy of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in shaping India’s foreign policy road map seemed threatened. The cacophony of a section over Modi’s ‘frequent’ foreign travels should be seen in this context.

According to Peter Martin, Modi inherited a small and weak foreign service. Modi’s foreign secretary was thrust onto him by the previous Congress-led dispensation.  After patiently trying out the Congress appointee, Modi had to bring in S Jaishankar, who was reportedly Manmohan Singh’s choice for Foreign Secretary but was sent to the US as ambassador to clear the path for Sujatha Singh. As the matter came under control, an attempt was made to destabilise the Modi government. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj came under attack over an issue that is essentially political in nature. Undaunted the Government kept pressing on. The trump card has been successful, tapping into India’s considerable soft power - its migrants, intellectuals, and even yoga -something the previous governments did not take up seriously. Modi used the extensive, wealthy, and increasingly politically engaged diaspora spread across various countries. He had before him successful models like the British Council, Germany’s Goethe Institutes, and China’s overseas network of Confucius Institutes and language scholarship programs, among others.

Actually India has suffered from the hangover of Pandit Nehru’s non-alignment policy. When US Secretary of state John Foster Dulles put together SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organisation) in 1954 India preferred to seek safety in neutrality. The headline-generating move did not change even after the Cold War ended and the US assembled all global powers against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. One must remember that Rajiv Gandhi had opposed the refueling of US planes in India. When Bill Clinton took over the reins in Washington in 1992, he realised that the global equation had changed. “In a new era of peril and opportunity our overriding purpose must be to expand and strengthen the world’s community of market-based democracies,” Clinton said. It was under Narasimha Rao that India decided to launch its liberalisation drive freeing its market from the tethers of licence-control-bureaucratic raj.  Unfortunately, little effort was made to reform its foreign policy. One reason, as Kissinger suggested, could be that “Since it (India) is more susceptible to religious and ideological currents within neighboring states than the European nations of the 19th century, the dividing line between its foreign and domestic policies is different and far more tenuous.” Narendra Modi is making a determined effort to integrate India’s foreign and domestic policies. The commentariat and their political masters refuse to accept the need for change. This Ostrich-like temperament makes them cry hoarse over Modi’s highly productive foreign tours. Evidently the cozy club of diplomats is also perturbed since they find that India is moving along on a road they never imagined.

 We will present an objective assessment of Modi’s decision to integrate Indian foreign policy with its economic interest, only when tempers settle down in the long run.

(The author is a senior political commentator. Views expressed are strictly personal)

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