In recent days, watchers of Indian TV news channels will have been looking at a familiar set of scenes: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his global travels, hugging world leaders, hobnobbing with tech CEOs, and wading gratefully into a sea of admiring diasporic Indians.
Last week Modi took in Portugal, the United States, and the Netherlands. This week, he became the first Indian PM to visit Israel — where they have now officially renamed a type of chrysanthemum as “Modi”— before heading on to an even grander platform at the G-20 summit in Germany.
At each stop, a highly efficient state PR machinery lists out agreements made and deals struck. Most important of all, an array of Indian TV channels cover these visits as rolling breaking news with blow-by-blow updates.
The image created is one of a highly successful salesman of all things India Inc.
But beyond the rhetoric and shows of friendship, how does one define Modi’s foreign policy? What does his impressive salesmanship mean for India, the region, and the world?
There is no better place to start than with properly discarding a theory New Delhi was once renowned for: “non-alignment.”
In the 1950s and 60s, India emerged as a founder and moral champion of NAM — the Non-Aligned Movement — whose member states professed to steer clear of formal alignments for or against great powers.
Experts say India has long abandoned the group’s ideology, at least in practice. “People tend to forget India aligned with the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s,” says Sumit Ganguly, a foreign policy expert and professor at Indiana University.
Under Modi, the perception of India as being decidedly aligned has only strengthened. In part, this is because of ever closer relations with the likes of Israel and Japan, and most of all, the United States. “There’s baggage with the US,” says Ganguly. “That’s because it once supported Pakistan. That continues to haunt many elites in India.”
The most visible nail in the non-aligned coffin seemed to come last September, when India declined to attend the group’s summit. “That was a mistake,” says Arun Sukumar, an analyst at India’s Observer Research Foundation, pointing to the group’s strength of 120 countries. “Modi underestimated the utility of NAM … India could have been the country at the summit that said ‘look, you need to be wary of China’s influence’.”
Before becoming Prime Minister, Modi — who was previously Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat — was something of an unknown quantity in respect to foreign policy. And yet, he seemed to adapt to the trappings of international diplomacy like a fish to water; he appeared wholly in his element meeting world leaders, and displaying a flair for personal touches that have become the hallmark of his friendly relations with many of his counterparts.
Yet Modi has rarely enunciated a clear vision for India’s foreign policy, at least publicly.
Ahead of his recent Israel visit, the newspaper Israel Hayom conducted a revealing interview with Modi. When asked if India considered itself ‘unaligned’ with either the West or the East, Modi dodged the question, instead saying “we want to engage constructively with both the East and the West.” In other words: to be everyone’s preferred business partner.
The question then is whether Modi’s engagement is working. “He’s placed India on a global stage,” says Ganguly, calling foreign policy “the brightest spot” in Modi’s three years as Prime Minister so far. “But it remains to be seen what longer-term impact his globetrotting really has.”
There has been an uptick in foreign investments as part of Modi’s “Make in India” program, for example, but it’s difficult to make an exclusive causality back to the PM’s diplomacy.
Critics say despite appearances Modi hasn’t changed the direction of Indian foreign policy. “Modi is building a foreign policy around himself,” says Sukumar, pointing to the public relations messaging around the Prime Minister’s global missives. “But he is outliving the effect of his personal diplomacy. His team has not put together a vision of something more defined or longer lasting.”
The Trump factor
Perhaps the most visible Indian foreign policy shift in recent decades has been its closeness with the United States. On a visit to India in 2010, President Obama famously predicted the two countries would share “a defining partnership” of the 21st century. For Indians who remembered their ties with the erstwhile Soviet Union just two decades ago, this was a pronounced shift, an open declaration of shared values and goals. (Typically, India has also remained friendly with Russia under Putin).
But what happens under a White House run by President Donald J. Trump?
“It is far from clear that Trump has a vision of India and where it fits,” says Ganguly. “Given Trump’s mercurial nature, I worry that Modi may overextend himself on this one.”
When Modi gave a joint statement alongside Trump in the White House’s Rose Garden last week, Modi initiated a warm embrace of the two leaders, designed to be broadcast to millions of homes around the world. It was a symbol of attachment. But beyond the carefully choreographed moves and praise for each other’s leadership, there remained differences: Trump seemed piqued at his country’s trade deficit with India, and Modi would have remained concerned about a growing anti-immigrant mood under the Trump administration.
Don’t forget China
Tucked away beyond more pressing global headlines, India has been tussling with its bigger rival China, with both sides accusing each other of territorial intrusions. The Chinese were building a road across the Himalayan mountain range when Bhutan accused China of encroaching on its land. Neighboring India—as a longstanding Bhutanese ally—got involved.
The move seems to have incensed Beijing. The state-sanctioned tabloid Global Times—seen as an unvarnished (and undiplomatic) riff on establishment views—ran an editorial warning India of hubris. “The Chinese public is infuriated by India’s provocation,” it said. “The Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity, or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers.”
How will India respond? “Modi needs to understand we’re dealing with a different China now,” says Sukumar, pointing to the 2008 financial crisis as a turning point in geopolitics. “Now that China has begun to assert itself our strategy has been to embrace ourselves further with the US, and the real concern is whether the White House under Trump has the same appetite to play a stabilizing presence in Asia.”
Modi will likely point back to history to prove his path is correct. Even when India was non-aligned, it fought bitter wars with Pakistan and China. It’s years of strategic alignment with the United States have proved relatively more peaceful, even if disputes always seem to be simmering close by.