PM on diplomatic chessboard
It was about time that Prime Minister Narendra Modi met the big boys of the world. The milieu that was set for the Chinese President, Xi Jinping’s visit to India was set quite commendably – in terms of big power relations. Modi had just wound down a visit to Japan, where he was feted by the Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe, a current favourite of the Wall Street bankers. President Pranab Mukherjee was travelling in Vietnam till four days before Xi’s plane landed in Ahmedabad.
So Xi was under no illusion that he would be able to co-opt Indian leadership into Bejing’s orbit of influence readily. The terms of reference of India’s engagement with China was cast in the maxim of ‘cooperation’ and ‘competition’.
On the Chinese side, significantly, about 10 days before Xi visited India, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) border guards had begun a stand-off across the Line of Actual Control (LOC) on the India claimed side. They did not stand down even though Xi, also the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), was visiting New Delhi.
That should have set the mood for the bilateral summit, despite the attempt by Modi lieutenants in the government to put a positive spin on the outcome of the summit and the visit. But contrary to the situation on the LAC, it was the supposed bonhomie between the two leaders Modi and Xi, that dominated the media lexicon while describing the meetings. So, presumably the media managers of the Modi regime succeeded to the extent that the media did not even report what are the reactions of the Chinese side to Modi’s entreaties. There were not even a query posited to the visiting contingent or to the embassy, on account of procuring their version of the story.
This failure of the media marked a fundamental weakness in Modi’s performance with the Xi in terms of the ‘unequal’ bilateral relations between the two countries. The joint statement that was issued on the penultimate days of Xi stay were full of homilies about cooperation and engagement even as the PLA straddled Indian real estate. Clearly, in the first serious summit where there was some strong-arm tactics with a big power, Modi came off poorly.
This was born out of a desperate attempt to notch up another ‘success’, to be positioned on Modi’s balance sheet. Despite the initial moves on the diplomatic chess board in terms of Japan and especially Vietnam- India’s correlative paradigm to China’s tough love for Pakistan.
An old Vietnamese friend- a daughter of a then North Vietnamese diplomat- had once explained that her nation’s antipathy against the Chinese runs deep in the ethno-cultural context. Though during the war of liberation against the Americans, the long underground tunnel called Ho Chi Min trail that kept then South Vietnamese guerrillas well supplied with Chinese weaponry, it didn’t take very long for the two nations- Vietnam and China- to fight a war within the decade of the American departure.
Now, Modi has embarked on a journey to New York and Washington, where he can expect to get lectured by the American establishment, beginning with the US president and including the plutocrats of the country, about how Indo-US strategic partnership has drifted over the last few years.
Modi will need to explain the mantra of ‘strategic autonomy’ that the Indian elite has crafted over the last five years or so to the American interlocutors. He can do it because he has himself not defined a definitive vision about the country’s foreign policies. So he can borrow the ideas of others and parrot the lines.
But really, an enunciation of the ‘strategic autonomy’ principle, coupled with India’s yet to be launched ‘Non-alignment 2.0’ precepts needs some airing. For, the Indian elite’s attempt to broad-base the country’s interests and eke out a leadership role requires an endorsement from the top and the policies to translate the vision.
A presumption can be made that Modi is visiting the USA with a plan. This is no longer like the joy rides that the RSS used to send him on for propagating its views and values to the non-resident Indian community that were on most times, located on the right of Genghis Khan.
Madison Square Garden or not, the NRIs who have the Gujarati community at the core of their community, would of course hail him for now, for the same ideological reasons mentioned above. It remains to be seen whether the real Modi emerges through the process of this visit from the world of make-believe geniality to the real scruffy and scrappy character that Gujarati Muslims talk about.
The author is a senior journalist