It is a measure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personality that his trademark style of informal summitry is today making a major impact on world leaders. For a leader who is wholly home-bred and schooled in Indian traditions, the felicity with which Modi deals with world leaders is remarkable indeed. Critics of his frequent foreign visits fail to appreciate the tremendous good that comes out of the bonhomie that such summits generate. Be it Xi Jinping in China, Shinzo Abe in Japan, Vladimir Putin in Russia or the characteristically-unpredictable Donald Trump in the US, the informal style of Modi’s diplomacy is bringing the leaders closer to India.
Many may mock at Modi’s bear hugs of world leaders but the fact remains that these are going down well in establishing his rapport with them.
The images that come to mind of these informal meetings are Modi and Putin on a joy ride in Sochi waters, with Xi Jinping on a swing by the Sabarmati river, the chai pe charcha with former US President Barack Obama in the Hyderabad House when he was in the saddle and Shinzo Abe in a kurta pyjama and Modi jacket at the Sabarmati ashram laying flowers in 2017.
Modi’s oratory also brings him much respect worldwide. It all adds up to building a positive image for India.
The ongoing visit of Modi to Russia and his informal exchanges with Putin came at a time when Russia was drifting away from the emotional connect with India. There are indications that Indo-Russian relations would shift to a stronger footing as a result of the informal interactions of the two leaders.
With some of his outreaches, Modi has inevitably rubbed some world leaders on the wrong side. President Trump, for instance is expected to be piqued by the emphasis on defence cooperation between India and Russia at a time when the US is moving to target Russian tie-ups in the sector. Likewise, the close ties established with Iran go contrary to US hostility towards Tehran.
But Modi believes in cultivating friends in conformity with enlightened national interest. The manner in which Indo-Israeli ties were given a boost with Modi’s visit to Israel irritated some leaders of the Muslim bloc. But Modi was unfazed. The closeness with Shinzo Abe, cemented through informal summits, irked China, but with time Beijing has learnt to appreciate that India means no harm to China.
In the economic arena, while India under Modi is facing rough times especially in the backdrop of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax, Modi’s forays abroad have boosted Indian external economic policy initiatives.
To name a few positives, Japan committed itself to investing 35 billion US dollars in India, France to investing 2 billion dollars, US to investing 4 billion dollars while the corporate sector in the US pledged 41 billion dollars in three years, among others. Australia and India signed a new security pact, while Canada agreed to supply uranium to India for the next five years.
With growing evidence of Trump’s inward-looking approach, India needed to shield itself from Chinese misadventures and Pakistani collusion against India. In that, Modi’s diplomatic forays have helped a great deal.
In 2014-15, India received $19.7 billion as foreign direct investment from 12 countries. Since the launch of Make in India campaign, FDI has gone up by 48 per cent. This is not to say that but for Modi’s diplomatic initiatives, these investments would not have materialised. But there can be little doubt that Modi’s forays helped the economy.
In fact, Modi thrives on a personality-based approach to diplomacy in which summits seem to be a particular favourite. Interestingly, Modi began his term as prime minister with an informal meeting of SAARC at his swearing-in ceremony.
One legitimate criticism of Modi’s forays abroad is that there is inadequate follow-up at the Indian ministerial end for which the bureaucracy needs to pull up its socks and Modi’s ministers need to exercise greater initiative.