Grand events, small gains

Is the Modi government using foreign policy moves, such as the events in Houston and Chennai, to project the Indian PM’s image and to meet its domestic political ends primarily?

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI photo)

Despite holding two grand events in the last month, India has not gained anything significant on the diplomatic front. Neither ‘Howdy Modi’ in Houston nor Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram resulted in resolving outstanding issues in the bilateral relationships with the United States (US) and China.

In fact, with the American lawmakers taking up the issue of Kashmir and negotiations on Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) reaching the final stages, there are signs that India’s international troubles will only go up. What then was the real purpose of these two big-ticket events?

Of the two events, ‘Howdy Modi’ in Houston was a real let down. Traditionally, Texas has been a stronghold of the Republican Party and hence is a crucial state for Trump in the upcoming Presidential elections. Besides, the Indian-American bloc is important for both Democrats and Republicans. Therefore, the Indian PM’s event in Houston was ostensibly seen as taking a partisan stand and demonstrating an eagerness to help President Donald Trump and the Republican Party by influencing Indian-American voters.

Modi’s slogan of ‘Ab ki bar Trump sarkar’ made matters worse. Some people tried to downplay what happened in the US and portray it as a calculated move. There were also attempts to demonstrate how India gained more.

However, neither has Trump softened his stand towards India nor has India managed to secure the much-awaited trade deal with the US. In fact, his comments about India since the ‘Howdy Modi’ event would certainly have not pleased the Indians. For example, just days after 'Howdy Modi' event, with Pakistani PM Imran Khan by his side, Trump said the Indian PM had made a “very aggressive” statement. He also repeated his offer to mediate between India and Pakistan.  

It was also lost on many Indians that with the allegations of Russian meddling in the US elections of 2016, the American political system has become extra-sensitive towards the attempts by any foreign government to influence their electoral process. Therefore, by openly endorsing Trump, the Indian PM has walked into risky territory. 

The second event was Modi-Xi informal summit hosted by India at Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu. This was the second informal summit between the two leaders and was perhaps considered necessary due to the recent spat over Kashmir. However, despite the media blitz and massive publicity, this summit did not elicit any positive outcomes as such.

Chinese support to Pakistan is not lessening in any way as could be seen in Imran Khan’s visit to China just before Xi’s India visit. Moreover, the India-China trade relationship remains skewed in favour of China. India remains worried about the RCEP and Chinese companies gaining unrestricted access to the Indian market.

On his way back from India, Xi Jinping’s visit to Nepal, the first visit by a Chinese head of state after 23 years, signalled the strengthening of the Sino-Nepalese relationship. Nepal and China are planning to increase physical connectivity and reduce Nepal’s dependence on India. It was also an indication that Nepal is taking steps to ensure that it will not suffer another blockade by India as it did in 2015.

Therefore, what exactly did these two grand events achieve? Who was the real audience for both these events?

Long shadow of domestic politics

It is clear that domestic politics looms large in the making of any country’s foreign policy. With the present establishment in India, domestic politics looms larger than it should. For example, ‘Howdy Modi’ and other past diaspora events in the US were organised keeping in mind the Sunday evening viewership back in India.

Therefore, apart from influencing the India-American community in the US, these events were utilised for projecting Prime Minister’s personality. A diaspora event organised in a stadium in the US is not exactly the global stage. But these events are portrayed to present it as a platform to showcase the arrival of the Indian PM globally.

Similarly, the choice of Mamallapuram signals the desire of the Bharatiya Janata Party to expand its electoral footprint in Tamil Nadu. In fact, the Prime Minister’s clothing, choice of food at the summit and other symbolic acts were clearly targeted at wooing the Tamil voters.

Although such informal summits and diaspora events may hold some amount of utility for the political establishment, a country cannot formulate its foreign policy direction based on it. In international relations, personality cults, image projection for domestic politics and smart event management does not work. It may, in fact, prove to be counter-productive.

There is no real substitute for patient diplomatic efforts abroad and ensuring faster economic growth at home. With the slowing down of the Indian economy, there is a clear need for domestic economic reforms to ensure speedier economic growth.

External engagements could be driven to ensure economic development and foreign investments. Rather than expending India’s limited diplomatic capital on tough posturing on Pakistan in the United Nations and event management for domestic politics, diplomacy could be geared for smoothening international relationships, attaining greater diplomatic room for protecting national interests and for building economic and military strength.

Recent actions in Kashmir and its international fallout, the signing of RCEP, the emerging situation in Afghanistan and the politics in Sri Lanka indicate that difficult days are ahead for Indian diplomacy. How will Indian diplomacy, obsessed with grand events and tough rhetoric, respond to it?

(Sankalp Gurjar is a research analyst with the Geostrategy Program of the Takshashila Institution)

The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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