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Decoding Narendra Modi's recent foreign visits

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent trip to Russia, Afghanistan, and - unexpectedly - Pakistan may serve as an important milestone in India's relations with all three countries. In Russia, Mr Modi's visit served an important strategic purpose; after all, relations between Russia and the West are freezing - though they may have warmed up slightly after the Paris attacks - and India's recent close engagement with the United States and Japan will not have gone unnoticed. Mr Modi, in Moscow, emphasised that "despite the confrontation against Russia", Russian President Vladimir Putin had "raised" his country "to a qualitatively new level."

India and Russia have traditionally had a close military relationship in particular, specifically in matters of procurement. Some chill had crept into this of late, but Mr Modi's visit reaffirmed its importance, in the form of various deals, including one to construct Russian-designed Kamov helicopters. The helicopters are to be built in India, a boost for the "Make in India" programme - as is the moving forward on a plan for Russia's state-controlled nuclear company, Rosatom, to build a nuclear power plant in India. Some of the equipment for the plant will be made in India, which has long been dependent on Russian military hardware - 70 per cent of India's arms imports in the 2010-14 period came from Russia, according to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, quoted in the Financial Times. What is less appreciated is that Russia needs India a great deal as well, with India taking almost 40 per cent of Russian defence exports. Mr Modi's visit suggests that disentangling this close relationship, as some suggest, is not feasible at the moment.

In Afghanistan, the PM inaugurated the country's new parliament building, which has been built by India. There he underlined the dangers of cross-border terrorism; the government in Kabul has suffered considerably from Pakistan's Pashtun proxies flowing across the Durand Line. In the wake of the declining United States presence in Afghanistan, the quality and energy of India's support to Kabul take on additional significance. Mr Modi's strong statement on terrorism seemed likely to grab all the headlines - if not for his unannounced stop in Pakistan, where he had talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and underlined their personal relationship by attending Mr Sharif's grand-daughter's wedding.

The National Democratic Alliance's Pakistan policy has confused most analysts, and Mr Modi's Pakistan visit has added an additional layer to it. There is little doubt that engaging Pakistan in conversation at all levels, including the highest, is a good idea. But, given the various flip-flops on Pakistan over the past 18 months, questions will continue to be asked about how sustainable this current thaw is. In any case, such good optics and much-scrutinised events work to build a good base to facilitate good relations - but they in themselves are not enough. One common factor that is visible in Mr Modi's various foreign trips is how he attempts to make diplomacy personal, and frequently succeeds. Whether in his fulsome praise for Mr Putin or his arrival on Mr Sharif's birthday, bilateral relationships are driven through personal equations. But this has dangers, too. Positive personal equations must be used to lay the groundwork for a more widespread network of relations between India and Pakistan.

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First Published: Sun, December 27 2015. 21:40 IST