The truth about foreign policy

Modi-Xi (FILE) Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photo prior to their meeting in Xian, Shaanxi province, China | AP
  • No country would push for an engagement with another country just because the leader of that country happens to be a brilliant orator oozing charisma.

Given Indians' propensity for seeking endorsement from abroad for everything that represents us as a nation, it is no surprise that the latest political battle raging in the country is over the impact Prime Minister Narendra Modi made on his much-discussed, seldom-analysed, frequent foreign sojourns. By dragging the country's foreign policy into the realm of political one-upmanship, the BJP brass have betrayed their inexperience on matters of foreign policy.

That it will definitely dent India's image as a mature democratic nation is stating the obvious. It is inconceivable for any democrat to claim that US President Barack Obama's foreign visits create a bigger impact than his Republican predecessor George W. Bush, even though it may be true. It needs to be understood that most foreign policy engagements are driven by economic interests rather than geopolitical and ideological alignments.

The importance, therefore, of rapport between the leaders is minimal. No country would push for an engagement with another country just because the leader of that country happens to be a brilliant orator oozing charisma, as some faithful sections of the media would have us believe about Modi.

Let us take a test case of his engagements with China, the US, Japan and France to see how his magic has worked. As per the Business Standard, the Chinese embassy, in the run-up to President Xi Jinping's visit to India, briefed the Indian media about the $100 billion investment to flow out of the visit. It is a mystery how the $100 billion later became $20 billion. Now, will it be fair for Modi to take the onus for his rapport or lack of it? It is common knowledge that border skirmishes in Chumar assumed dangerous proportions during Xi's visit. The visit surely served some unique visuals including of the two leaders on a traditional swing on the banks of the Sabarmati river in Gujarat. If the media hype around the optics had not been so intense, perhaps, the Chinese side would have been hard pressed to explain their regular forays into the Indian territory. A clear case of substantive issues neglected to accommodate the optics and, thereby, playing into the Chinese hands.

The Chinese president did return the gesture by receiving Modi in his home state in Xi'an.

The two leaders signed 12 agreements that would define the areas of $20 billion investment in the next five years which include leasing aircraft and modernisation of railways and telecom. Two industrial parks which will serve as manufacturing and export hubs to Chinese telecom companies will be set up in Gujarat and Maharashtra. The move, no doubt, will generate employment, but perhaps one also needs to examine its implications on the nation's security.

The agreements need to be seen in the light of Kathy Chu's May 1, 2013, Wall Street Journal report, which highlights how China is deliberately moving from mass production to skilled and research-oriented production. China's move to Asian countries like Vietnam for offshore mass manufacturing has been mentioned in the report. As expected, India did not get any assurance on border incursions, staple visas and activities in PoK. The Chinese TV reporting the PM's visit showed a map of India without Arunachal Pradesh and PoK, while we kept Japan out of the Malabar naval exercise to please the dragon and agreed to give e-visas to the Chinese.

The most crucial foreign engagement of the PM was his visit to the US, a country which had steadfastly denied him visa due to his perceived culpability in the Gujarat riots. True to his persona, he turned it into a massive show of strength of his popularity among the Indian diaspora in the US.

Obama's visit to India, again, was touted as a personal endorsement of Modi's leadership. The pitch assumed hysterical proportions in the media forcing Obama to clarify the purpose of his visit. Also glaring was Modi’s insistence on addressing the US president as Barack.

While in France, PM Modi himself announced purchase of Rafale fighter jets in flyaway mode, while choosing to skip mentioning the indigenous production clause. This clause has been central to Dassault, manufacturer of Rafale, winning the contract over much more fancied rivals like Eurofighter Typhoon and American F-18. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has now confirmed that off-the-shelf purchase of 36 fighter jets will take place in deference to economic viability. This is a major deviation from the 'Make in India' clarion call made not too long before Modi's France visit. It is bound to raise calls for a complete review of the tender process.

That the PM himself chose to make the announcement of the purchase in France reflects a certain eagerness to please the French. As it may be recalled, the 126-aircraft deal inked by the UPA had a provision of buying 18 aircraft in flyaway mode and manufacturing the remainder in India to counter the combined threat of China and Pakistan. The scaled-down deal in terms of numbers needed by the IAF falls woefully short of addressing the original basis of floating the tender. This may also mean that India will still be in market for more such deals from other sources, a prospect aviation and military experts do not agree upon. 

The Jaitapur nuclear plant deal with the French government-controlled Areva is also not showing much progress, especially in key areas like per unit cost and liability issues. According to Sunil Felix, nuclear counsellor in the French embassy, the deal is still two years away from ground work despite two agreements signed regarding need to review contentious issues during Modi's visit.

As India marches on, confident of its enormous potential and rising clout in the comity of nations as a vibrant secular democracy, it needs to shun personality cult and show a collective resolve in tackling its unique and daunting challenges.

The showmanship also puts in shade real achievements of the government like safe return of nurses from Iraq and securing the release of a Christian priest held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The swift extension of help to quake-hit Nepal generated goodwill, till sheen was taken off it by a social media boast that the Nepal PM came to know about the quake from the Indian PM’s tweets. One can make a definitive assumption that the Nepal PM would not have expected a private admission on such a tragedy to be put on social media. Especially when it makes his government look clueless.

Despite the giant leaps in science and technology, and the much-hyped economic boom, India is home to 194.6 million malnourished people and figures a lowly 135 in the human development index. No amount of razzle-dazzle events like the one in Madison Garden can take away these disturbing realities.

One hopes that PM Modi's over-enthusiastic media advisers see the futility of hard selling his 'global appeal' and focus on issues that are holding back the country from realising its true potential. In doing so, Modi is sure to acquire a global appeal not dependent on ocular extravaganzas.

That is what needs to be pursued and achieved.

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