Many Indians, both home and abroad, were deeply enamoured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the Madison Square garden, amidst all the glitter and pizzazz. Modi’s address to the Indian diaspora in Shanghai, however, holds greater significance in light of the ruling Indian dispensation’s Act East Policy. The two broad themes that Modi articulated were greater people to people contact and the dawn of an Asian century, in partnership with our neighbours from across the Himalayas. The emphasis placed on the Indian diaspora by the ruling dispensation at the Centre is inextricably linked to Modi’s “Make in India” campaign. It is in line with Modi’s track record as Gujarat chief minister, where he constantly invited investments from abroad. Unlike Indian governments of the past, New Delhi’s ability to use the diaspora as a soft influence on foreign policy initiatives has not been limited to those residing in the Europe or the United States of America.
It has spread all across Asia. In his bid to emphasise the need for greater people to people contact, Prime Minister Modi made a reference to the great 7thcentury Chinese Buddhist monk Hiuen Tsang, who travelled to India and documented his journey. If a Buddhist monk from across China can document his travels to the prime minister’s village of birth in Gujarat, then the large Indian diaspora in China must break all barriers and represent us as a nation to the Chinese, argued Modi. Greater people to people contact, especially through the medium of trade, is a policy initiative that has driven the ruling dispensation’s foreign policy. Although China’s top mobile phone maker Xiaomi has confirmed its desire to make devices in India, the success of the “Make in India” initiative hinges on the ruling dispensation’s ability to pass the Goods and Services Tax Bill, besides amending the land acquisition law, without making undue compromises with regional political forces. In its essence, the ruling dispensation must ally such talk with policy action on the ground. Merely providing e-visas to Chinese citizens will not be enough. The domestic economic environment must change and the government must display the requisite courage and nous to pass key institutional reforms without bending over backwards to vested domestic interests.
“This is the 21st century and it is the Asian age, so ensure that you build relations with China,” Prime Minister Modi said. “China emerged as a powerful country in 30 years and we are considered to be the fastest developing country in the world. Plus, our rich heritage that connects us both will help us understand each other better.” Although New Delhi clearly understands the need for greater trade ties with China, Modi has also made an attempt to address the perceived regional imbalance in Beijing’s favour. Recent trips to various island nations across the Indian Ocean region to secure India’s sea lanes, amidst growing Chinese presence, has seen New Delhi use the term “Sagar Mala” (a necklace of diamonds) for the very first time to counter Beijing’s proposed “String of Pearls” or the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities along its sea lines of communication.
The recently concluded deal with Iran on the development of the <g data-gr-id="34">Chabhar</g> port, which will provide India crucial access to Central Asia, is another step in the right direction. Development and infrastructure deals with Japan, Australia and Canada, besides key economic deals with fellow SAARC and South East Asian nations, are some of the other initiatives New Delhi has taken to counteract China and secure its own interests. However, besides the recent constitutional amendment for the land border agreement with Bangladesh and renewed ties with Sri Lanka, nothing concrete has happened on the ground in South Asia. Although New Delhi has been smart not to ally itself with Japan and the USA, the ruling dispensation will have to assert itself through dedicated <g data-gr-id="35">follow up</g> work and policy action on the ground. The possibilities of greater trade ties and people to people contact with China, allied with strong economic ties with fellow Asia nations, are immense.