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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech celebrated the spread of democracy in South Asia and other parts of the world, underlying the soft power of India’s democracy promotion in its neighbourhood. Photo: PTI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech celebrated the spread of democracy in South Asia and other parts of the world, underlying the soft power of India’s democracy promotion in its neighbourhood. Photo: PTI

Modi’s prayer at the multilateral altar

Modi's maiden speech at UNGA displayed three characteristics: a mix of idealism tempered with realism; an effort to showcase India's soft and hard power

The inevitable hype over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US, particularly the impressive line up of events including meetings with top CEOs and the sold out Madison Square Garden gig for the Indian diaspora—not to mention his bilateral with President Barack Obama—have overshadowed an equally important outing: his debut at the annual United Nations General Assembly jamboree.

Modi’s maiden speech displayed three characteristics: a mix of idealism tempered with realism; an effort to showcase India’s soft and hard power; and more continuity than change with the policies of the previous government.

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The idealism was apparent in his assertion of India’s unwavering belief in multilateralism, the “need for genuine dialogue and engagement between countries" and a preference for “G-All" over one country or a group of countries determining the “course of this world". The realism was evident in the call to reform the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to include India, which would only consolidate the very role of a select group of countries to address global peace and security. The realist trait was also obvious in the qualified call to carry out a serious bilateral dialogue with Pakistan “without the shadow of terrorism".

The speech celebrated the spread of democracy in South Asia and other parts of the world, underlying the soft power of India’s democracy promotion in its neighbourhood. For good measure it also threw in Indian spiritualism and yoga and called for adopting an international yoga day. Simultaneously, it highlighted the contribution of India’s hard power for UN peacekeeping and the need to involve troop contributing countries in decision making related to peacekeeping.

The continuity in India’s policies were evident in the speech’s assertion that the eradication of poverty should be the “core" goal of the post-2015 development agenda; that it was crucial to seek a more sustainable world; while reiterating its position of “common but differentiated responsibilities" between the developed and emerging economies. However, Modi’s oratorical skills made the articulation of these policies more compelling than in the past.

In addition, the speech emphasized the need for the international community and the UN to address three issues comprehensively: terrorism, sustainable development and emerging challenges.

On terrorism, Modi cautioned that global terrorism posed a universal threat to all countries and regions and stressed the need for international efforts to combat terrorism by adopting the UN’s comprehensive convention on international terrorism. The speech, however, failed to take note of the UNSC resolution adopted under the presidency of Obama to enforce countries to take steps to curb terrorism. It also did not spell out what leadership role, if any, India might take in tackling this scourge.

On sustainable development, Modi introduced the concept of the need for each government to “fulfill its responsibility to support growth and development". This was particularly introspective given that despite its economic growth India has more poverty than any other country in the world, and a single state—Uttar Pradesh—still has 12% of the world’s poor. It also explains why Modi’s development agenda will focus on reducing the number of poor in the country.

Finally, Modi cautioned that the oceans, outer space and cyber space have become “new instruments of prosperity" and are also a possible “new theatre of conflict" and called for “peace, stability and order" in these realms. While this is admirable rhetoric, it is not clear what role India will play to shape rules in the multilateral arena on these three emerging challenges.

Modi’s prayer at the altar of multilateralism was inspiring but to manifest it he and India will have to contribute by deeds rather than words to UN efforts.

W.P.S Sidhu is a senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings India and a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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