Some of it is about the man himself—Modi’s a practitioner of politics au naturel. There are no frills here, he tells you like it is. Equally, some of it is deliberate, and this is about Modi playing to his strengths. Unlike Manmohan Singh, the Oxbridge scholar, here’s a man who is more at home talking about toilets and black money rather than, say, changes in interest rates or the climate.
Articulate and possessed of natural rhetorical flair, as can only be expected of a former pracharak (communicator) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Modi is clearly interested more in effecting rather than affecting change. Here, after all, is a man who is interested in politics, who gets it, who is trying to put clear blue—well, okay then, saffron—water between his party and a bristling Left.
Naturally, his style of politics also finds a reflection in the new government’s foreign policy.
There is continuity, of course, but it is Modi, rather than his foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, or civil servants leading policy. There is nothing earth-shattering or new in this—powerful men and women with a clear popular mandate have a tendency to try and lead on all fronts. And the end of the Cold War has seen foreign ministries, across the world, being edged out by the wild winds of commerce and trade.
What is surprising is the revelation that Modi appears to get foreign policy, too—not in the sense that Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, got it, unveiling a holistic vision to give a nascent democracy its first modern intellectual direction, but more in the mould of the practical Chinese, guided by the Gujarati’s unmatched nose for sniffing out business opportunities.
Modi started off with a much-publicized focus on India’s neighbours—the seven other countries of South Asia that make up the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). But in the six months that he has been prime minister, he has been to not only Bhutan and Nepal, but also Brazil, Japan, the US, Australia, Myanmar and Fiji, travels that have taken up, according to one commentator, an entire month (including a second visit to Nepal this week to attend a SAARC summit).
More visits are scheduled for the first four months of 2015—to Sri Lanka, the UK and Germany. It’s almost counter-intuitive to think of Modi as a foreign policy man, but he seems to be lovin’ it. There he is taking a selfie with the Aussie PM, ambling around the statue of Martin Luther King Jr in Washington with Barack Obama, swinging on the jhoola with China’s Xi Jinping by the banks of the Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad, nattering away on Twitter with Shinzo Abe of Japan.
Feeling a bit faint and out of breath already? Then try topping all of this by beating China’s Xi in a race to the Pacific island of Fiji. Indians—the descendants of indentured labourers—make up around 37% of Fiji’s population, even after a mass emigration following a 1987 coup (the first of many) aimed against ethnic Indians. It means a lot when big brother comes over and says, “It’s okay, I’m right behind you."
And now this. Modi’s biggest foreign policy success so far—Obama’s acceptance of an invitation to be chief guest at next year’s Republic Day parade, where the president of the US will be in attendance as India shows off its military might to the world.
By all accounts, this was the result of a personal initiative by Modi rather than a foreign office accomplishment. “This is really a big deal," former Indian foreign secretary Salman Haidar told me. “And it’s not just a matter of Obama coming here. For Modi to invite him, tell him ‘come and be my chief guest’, shows self-belief and self-confidence. I think that his foreign policy has been active and bold, that he’s taken initiatives and engaged the process. Is there going to be substance? We’ll have to wait and see."
It’s not as if India has much time to inject this substance. For example, what happens after Obama has done the parade bit? The pressure will mount on India. Just this week, US trade representative Michael Froman, in New Delhi for meetings with his Indian counterpart, Nirmala Sitharaman, was urging India in pretty strident terms to tear down its “wall of protectionism", strengthen its intellectual property rights regime and make it easier to do business in India. If India were to do all that, so many more foreign manufacturers could “make in India".
“While Modi and Obama have come to some kind of an agreement, the Americans are pushing for more," Haidar said. “There are different interests in negotiations—you don’t come out of negotiations smelling of roses. What is immediately ahead is a period of give and take."
A more astonishing turnaround could not be imagined. A year ago, you thought of Modi, and you thought visa. US visa. How would the man be received in foreign lands, by foreign governments, if the numero uno of planet Earth, the US, denied him a visa?
Six months into his premiership, not only has Modi travelled to the US, but Obama has taken executive action to regularize the status of thousands of skilled foreign workers in the US, allow foreign workers to change jobs and make it easier for foreign-born tech students to settle down and work in the US—all part of an immigration reform plan.
As the Americans say, who woulda thunk, eh?