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Balancing act: How will Narendra Modi make India look strong globally?

Modi could even - and probably should - push his Russian interlocutors to make serious efforts to end the war

Narendra Modi, Modi, BJP

Modi will also likely use this trip as an excuse for not attending last week’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping dominated by China. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Bloomberg
By Mihir Sharma

The optics are startling: As Nato leaders gather in Washington this week, India’s leader Narendra Modi is in Moscow visiting President Vladimir Putin. Admittedly, no major deliverables are expected from their summit. But it could help answer one crucial question: how a weakened Modi intends to promote India globally in his third term. 
 
Under Modi, foreign policy has become an important tool of domestic politics. The prime minister’s first term was dominated by the troubled relationship with Pakistan, and he won a landslide following a military confrontation between the two neighbors during his first re-election bid in 2019.

In his second term, Modi positioned himself as having raised India to a leadership role, especially of fellow developing nations, hosting a glittering G-20 summit a few months before launching his re-election campaign. His third term will need its own theme.

Modi’s words and actions in Moscow will thus be scrutinised closely. This is, after all, his first official trip since being returned to power last month. Traditionally, Indian prime ministers visit one of the country’s neighbors before traveling elsewhere. In both 2014 and 2019, Modi flew to Bhutan shortly after winning a parliamentary majority.

This year, of course, Modi’s party lost its majority and will have to depend upon allies to rule. Does this visit to Russia portend a shift for the politically wounded prime minister? It is the first time that Modi and Putin are meeting one-on-one since Moscow’s armies crossed the Ukrainian border more than two years ago. Earlier scheduled visits — the leaders of India and Russia are supposed to meet once a year — were cancelled.

Indian officials downplay such talk. The country’s most senior diplomat told reporters that the “annual summit has not been held between the two countries since 2021, and this has been scheduled to be held at this time. I think this is all there is to it. I would not want to read anything more in that in terms of its significance.”

There’s certainly a lot to discuss. India has now become one of the largest buyers of Russian oil. That has saved the country money but means its trade with Russia is severely imbalanced. Financial and other sanctions on Russian entities have made paying for that oil very difficult, too.

Modi will also likely use this trip as an excuse for not attending last week’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a grouping dominated by China. New Delhi has long argued that its outreach to Putin is essential to prevent Russia from drifting further into Beijing’s orbit. Modi is essentially telling Putin: “I am the only major leader besides Xi Jinping who will talk to you — but I won’t talk to Xi and you, only you.”

From that point of view, nothing much is likely to change with Modi’s visit. India’s strategic position remains as strong as it was before the trip was announced.

The prime minister’s political standing is not, however. In the past, he has had ambitions for India to serve as a bridge between East and West, and between North and South. He could reinforce that position by reminding Putin, as he did in 2022, that “this is not an era of war.”

Modi could even — and probably should — push his Russian interlocutors to make serious efforts to end the war. That would be welcomed in a West increasingly worried about how a return of Donald Trump to the White House could influence the course of the conflict. Access to Western technology and markets remains critical to Modi’s ambitions for India to modernise and grow into an export power.

But domestic constraints give the Indian prime minister other incentives. He could just as easily use this visit to cast himself as leading a challenge, on behalf of a rising India, to an unequal, West-led global order.

Such an approach could be quite popular. Young Indians, like their counterparts in China, expect that the world order should respond with deference to their country’s emergence as a great power. Even some of those who didn’t vote for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the recent elections look to him to command that deference on their behalf. The prime minister does best when he has a foil, and seemingly arrogant Western powers offer a powerful one.

So far, Modi has managed to balance growing closeness with the US and friendships with US rivals such as Iran and Russia. But everyone tires of balancing acts. There is no reason to suppose this one will define Modi’s third term as it did his first two.

Disclaimer: This is a Bloomberg Opinion piece, and these are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not reflect the views of www.business-standard.com or the Business Standard newspaper
 

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First Published: Jul 09 2024 | 9:19 AM IST

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