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Aditi Phadnis: How Modi projects ideas of India

Narendra Modi's foreign policy moves have not all been warm and fuzzy

Aditi Phadnis  |  New Delhi 

Aditi Phadnis

Some years ago, while watching a contingent of a Gorkha Rifles Regimental Centre band marching in the parade, a Nepali colleague commented with satisfaction and spontaneous ill-concealed delight: "Gorkha log Indian Army ka band baja rahen hain". The comment came amid tension in India-Nepal relations, for many years, the only adjective used to describe the state of play between the two nations.

But things have changed. The Nepali media, for years one of India's most trenchant critics, seems almost slack-jawed at the signing of the historic (PTA) between India and Nepal a few days ago, which will enable bilateral power trade. The PTA is crucial for both sides to export and import electricity, fix the price and explore the market. Nepal has the capacity to produce 84,000 Mw of electricity. It currently produces 700 Mw.

The draft PTA had been negotiated by the previous government. It was delivered by this government: the path smoothened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to Nepal Parliament, delivered with panache in Hindi.

Would it have mattered if Modi had spoken in English? Probably not, the agreement would still have been signed. But the difference language makes is to take the discourse to people, making intermediation irrelevant. No Opposition party, not even the hardline Maoists like the Baidya group, has objected to the PTA. If Indian business plays fair and does not cheat the Nepali people, the PTA could be a game-changer in relations, not just between the countries but also its people.

Impressive as he was in Kathmandu, in Tokyo, to many of us, Modi was toe-curlingly embarrassing, grabbing a recorder (it wasn't a flute, by the way) to play on it, then transforming himself into Ringo Starr. A class of Indian people watched with fixed smiles as he talked about how he understood money because he was a Gujarati, how he felt a unique empathy with the Japanese and their way of life (obviously sweeping aside some of the less-than-wholesome business and labour practices of Japanese companies in India), and wittering on about the evils of "expansionism": now that his foreign minister has told us that he didn't mean China's designs, maybe he was referring to Japan, whose moves in Korea, China and other countries in the 1920s were unquestionably expansionist: if he was, that was appallingly bad manners.

But he did it all in India's national language. Those lucky enough not be burdened with baggage watched him and created their own context for India's No longer was it about dark suits and bloodless moves, spoken in some alien gobbledygook. suddenly got a meaning.

Modi's moves have not all been warm and fuzzy. When he met Sri Lanka President Mahinda after his swearing in ceremony, he delivered a terse message - implement the 13th Amendment as you promised with transfer of police powers to the Northern province. Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan media reported (its disapproval obvious) was "taken aback" at this deviation from protocol and the implied discourtesy. But Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G L Peiris had already been informed that this matter would come up when met Modi. In fact, he made suo motu reference to it in Parliament. The Sri Lankans metaphorically shrugged, as if to say: do your worst. But Modi made his point and it was conveyed to the right quarters.

But not everything he's done is right, either. When she was President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, caught in the throes of a particularly vicious attack on her government and herself by leader of opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe who was visiting the US at the time, told Business Standard in a moment of bitterness: "This is what we admire so much about India. Y'all never carry your domestic differences abroad. No matter what your disagreements, outside you present one front: the Indian front". There are countless examples of this. In 1994, the then Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao sent Salman Khurshid and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party leader who later became prime minister, to argue India's case at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Vajpayee's eloquence and Khurshid's arguments proved to be astonishingly effective, resulting in the withdrawal of the Pakistan-backed resolution against India. There was no name-calling, no back-biting, and actually many cordial post-prandial excursions in the city. When Lalu Prasad went to Pakistan, he became a national hero: and though he would have earned brownie points domestically, he steadfastly refused to criticise the Indian government's policy towards the minorities, despite being provoked repeatedly. When Sonia Gandhi was yet to take over the Congress, her advisor Natwar Singh made it a point to advise her to never to criticise the government of the day, whatever its complexion, to the foreign leaders who called on her.

When in Japan, Modi told his audience his gift of a "Gita" to the Emperor of Japanese will rile the "secularists" back home. "There will be a TV storm. The secularists will say: 'Who does Modi think he is?'" Without naming the Congress, he was disparaging of the last 10 years of development in India. Considering he is reaping a lot of what was sown (in foreign policy at least) in the last 10 years, that criticism seems a bit rich.

The redeeming feature of all this is his foreign minister. Sushma Swaraj is seasoned, evolved and secure enough to know that she doesn't have to prove anything to anyone. But Modi?

First Published: Fri, September 12 2014. 21:47 IST