PM's foreign visits: Style and substance

Modi has established his credentials as a man interested in good neighbourly policies, but on credible terms.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s return from yet another summit, and this time a second visit to Nepal and a second meeting with several neighbouring leaders – there is by now a  track record of energetic

external engagement that merits evaluation. The two narratives are already ‘trending’ to use a currently fashionable phrase borrowed from the social media lingo.

The dominant strand is that Modi is an ‘achiever’ who has accomplished a lot in six months: active interaction with all major powers, a hyper kinetic multi-directional itinerary, and a rack of promises that are in the pipe line. He has established a chemistry, seemingly positive with all the key world leaders, and what is equally important, has not taken a discernable misstep, even with the most difficult interlocutor, Pakistan.

There is a second narrative, less vocal, mainly from traditional Congress party sceptics, but not limited to them, that what we have seen is a lot of hype and hope, but not tangible results, and that spectacle is not to be mistaken for substance.

Does the truth lie somewhere in between, as analysts find it convenient of saying – seeking safety in the middle ground – or is there a different way of assessing?
First, it must be recognised that in international diplomacy, the symbols and the spectacle are also significant and count as ‘substance’. On this score, at least, Modi has done very well.

Whether feeding fish in Kyoto, inviting the Xi Jinping couple to sway on the jhoola in Ahmedabad,  being ‘shirtfronting’ buddies with a tough talking Abbot in Australia, or the ultimate – persuading Obama to be the guest for the Republic day, Modi has been the master of the dramatic gesture.

Second, it should be noted that the gestures are not empty, but have heralded something larger. The invitation to all SAARC leaders for his inaugural has served the government and Modi well—it signalled that for him the neighbourhood is a priority, a point that has retained its validity and utility.

The cordial meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in New Delhi, and the sari- shawl diplomacy too was useful, even in retrospect. It created the narrative of Modi extending the hand of friendship and later getting miffed with the negative signals coming from Pakistan.

To international observers, Modi has established his credentials as a man interested in good neighbourly policies, but on credible terms. The second seemingly calculated hand- shake in Kathmandu with Sherif  sustains this narrative.

Turning to other gestures, whether with the Chinese leader or with Obama, Modi has created the image of a leader comfortable in his skin, doing things his own way (whether fasting or hosting a Gujarati meal), of being an animated guest or host, of never being a retiring or reticent person, neither shy nor overwhelmed by the dazzle of an occasion.

Spare a thought for the personal transformation. All this is from a man, inexperienced in world summitry, unexposed

relatively to the sophistry and sophistications of gilded palaces and redolent retreats. In terms of the study of a persona –

rooted in India, rising from humble origins, growing in front of our eyes, and in six months  becoming a confident and comfortable world leader – his is stuff that biographers should tackle and will, one day, but that is in the future. It is only six months as yet. Tangible results?

Third, are there tangible results so far? It must be recognised that there are, though the government has not catalogued them.

To name some at random: the breaking of the logjam with regard to WTO where with some creative diplomacy with the US, we are now not  being seen as ‘spoilers’, but have joined the consensus on trade facilitation while securing our objective of providing food subsidies;

the agreement on the BRICS development back with an Indian president; the promises of investment specifically from Japan, China, Australia and US, if we create the necessary platforms at home; the functionally useful agreements with China for industrial parks and improvements in railways; the freeing of fisherman from Sri Lanka; simplification of visa regimes for some, and incentives and a sense of inclusion for overseas Indians.

As in the domestic arena, there have been a series of announcements, of steps taken, others of plans in the pipeline. Not an inert period, as even the detractors concede.

Yes, there are intractable problems that do not get resolved despite apparent bonhomie, a handshake does not mean a ‘deal’, and personal chemistry may not melt frozen situations. It is not everyday that you get breakthroughs like China opening up to Nixon’s America or an America under Bush accepting India’s nuclear reality.

Short of such breakthroughs, the relations between two nations are impacted for better or for worse by the atmospherics and the symbolism on display.

A year more and it may be appropriate to start looking at achievements. But it the meanwhile, it is fair to say that Modi has projected a style that seems to work, and shall we say, “so far so good”.
(The writer is a former ambassador)

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