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Business News/ Opinion / Online-views/  Determining the legacy of Narendra Modi

Determining the legacy of Narendra Modi

The world is watching how Modi performs in moving the economy ahead and how he will position India in international climate negotiations

Modi may want to look at Germany for a successful symbiosis of economy and ecology when it comes to his Make in India campaign. Photo: ReutersPremium
Modi may want to look at Germany for a successful symbiosis of economy and ecology when it comes to his Make in India campaign. Photo: Reuters

One year into a five-year term is too early for a definite judgement on Narendra Modi’s performance. Both domestically and internationally, he has established himself as a leader with a vision, an ambitious plan to change the face of India. Achieving visionary goals takes time, more so in a country as complex and diverse as India, with its combative democracy and myriad social and other challenges in the way.

In Europe, and I will refer mainly to Germany, where I hail from, Modi is perceived by many as a “can-do politician", someone who wants to get the job done. This job has a strong economic focus. Typically, Germans see India as a crowded developing nation on the brink of taking off economically. Mass poverty and deprivation remain a dominant feature, with the other side, the modernizing and industrializing India, slowly moving to centre stage. Modi stands for the latter.

While I have no empirical data to prove the case, I would argue India’s public image has improved in important audiences, among Germans with a professional or personal interest. This does not mean that stories featuring India as the “world capital of rape" and, more recently, as the “world capital of air pollution", have disappeared. They still rank high in media reports and this will continue as long as the journalistic rule that bad news is good news persists. However, there is now a strong counterweight—in the persona of the Prime Minister. Modi is portrayed as a politician with a successful track record as a leader at the state level, a king of digital political communications and marketing, and, importantly, as an internationalist who in a short time led India back to a front seat in world politics. From a public relations point of view, this image is in line with what Modi and his consultants want it to be.

The most important event in this context has been Modi’s visit to Germany and India’s partnership in the Hannover Fair, the biggest industrial show worldwide. Apart from the various business deals and the confirmation of the healthy state of political relations, India’s appearance in Germany has been a publicity success. For weeks, the metallic lion with the “Make in India" slogan punched on to its back decorated airports, railway stations and other communications hubs.

During their summit talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Modi reconfirmed the “strategic partnership" of the two nations, a formulation that has become a cornerstone of German-Indian relations.

With the focus on economic cooperation and technical projects promoting renewable energy to counter climate change, one could ask how “strategic" this relationship actually is in the classical sense of that word. If we define strategic in the narrow and traditional sense of political and military concerns, the relationship between New Delhi and Berlin (and most European nations, leave alone the European Union) would qualify only as second rank.

Here, New Delhi’s (strategic) priorities are well defined: it’s Asia first and the US next, the immediate neighbourhood plays an essential role also—and Europe, leave alone Africa and Latin America, are also-rans. The same lack of political priority is apparent on the other side: Europe is preoccupied with internal matters of how to rescue the euro, the swelling migration crisis, and the war in neighbouring Ukraine. In this set of existential problems, India and her issues are far away—not just in a geographic sense.

Germany’s interest in the region has diminished further with the pull-back of its soldiers from Afghanistan.

The next mega event on the German-Indian agenda will be the visit of Merkel to India, slated for October. On that occasion, Modi will once more be in the spotlight of the German media for a few days. We may expect special reports, much commentary and feature stories. And maybe even an exclusive interview where the Indian leader conveys to a German audience his positions on democracy, terrorism, religion and secularism, the development of the world order and other issues.

On that occasion, other Indian voices and positions will also be heard—news that may not be so favourable to Modi and his government. Among these, the allegations by an increasingly belligerent opposition of misuse of power and centralization, religious discrimination and shrinking spaces for civil society groups that are critical of government policies.

Seen from the outside, none of these issues will determine the legacy of Modi. The big themes the world is watching are Modi’s performance in moving the economy ahead and how he will position India in international climate negotiations. The world is watching with considerable interest (and suspense) whether India can replicate the economic success story of China and evolve into the new economic locomotive to pull the world into a brighter future. India’s economic growth will undoubtedly have an impact on energy consumption and carbon emissions. Expect external “suggestions"—to use a friendly diplomatic term—that India should follow China’s lead and announce carbon cuts of its own, to multiply as we move closer to the Paris conference.

Modi would not be Modi if he does not come up with a communicative counter strategy to deal with the situation. We have been treated to a taste of this in interviews where he portrays India as nature-loving: “In Indian civilisation in particular, the principle value is that exploitation of nature is a crime," he told Time magazine. How to reconcile this radical ecological principle with large-scale industrial schemes and the Make in India campaign will be one of the many challenges. Modi may want to look at Germany for a successful symbiosis of economy and ecology. But this success story in the heart of Europe has had and continues to have a high price.

No doubt the world will keep an eye on Modi. Considering his communicative habits and his particular desire to share all sorts of information with everyone and anyone, Modi is inviting this attention—and should therefore be fond of the publicity. Thus far, this publicity has been largely favourable. Whether this will stay the same in the future will depend mainly, if not exclusively, on the performance of one man alone: Modi.

Ronald Meinardus is regional director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in New Delhi. He is one Twitter at @meinardus

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Published: 25 May 2015, 12:10 AM IST
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