Home / Politics / Policy /  How the international community perceives Narendra Modi

New Delhi: With most Indian opinion polls handing victory in the yet-to-be-held national election to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance, the international community has been sitting up and taking notice of the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi.

Largely seen as a controversial figure in the past, Modi seems to be getting attention for his pro-development economic agenda. On foreign policy, though, he is still considered somewhat of a mystery, according to former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal.

“Modi has been a state leader, with no stint in Delhi, and hence a relatively unknown entity for foreign interlocutors except those who have travelled to Gujarat for business reasons," Sibal said.

In recent years, Modi’s emphasis on development and good governance has found takers at home and abroad. In 2005, the Modi brand of governance got an unexpected endorsement when the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, chaired by Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, judged Modi’s Gujarat as the best in terms of economic freedom or ease of doing business.

Latest statistics from the department of industrial policy and promotion show Gujarat received $9.4 billion in foreign investment between April 2000 and January 2014—ranked behind Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in attracting investment. Most of this came after Modi became Gujarat chief minister in 2001.

Biswajit Dhar, director general at the New Delhi-based Research and Information System for Developing Countries think tank, is of the view that Modi needs to be assessed on a relative scale.

“When most state governments seem beset with problems of decision making, Modi is seen to be taking the right decisions with alacrity. Modi’s image has been built through him seen to be taking prompt decisions in a few key projects, which has also caught the media attention," said Dhar.

He pointed to the example of Modi inviting the diversified Tata group’s then chairman Ratan Tata to set up his plant for manufacturing the Nano low-cost car in Gujarat in 2008 after the company ran afoul of local politics in West Bengal, which also caught international attention. Financial Times commentator David Pilling in a column published last month referred to the Tata case as he noted: “Modinomics is the triumph of implementation over prevarication."

“Part of Mr Modi’s attraction is that, by sheer force of will, he may be able to override some of the checks and balances of Indian democracy and introduce some of the clearheadness of growth-driven China," Pilling wrote.

Modi’s pan-India economic vision was outlined in January, three months after he was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. It includes the creation of 100 new, so-called smart cities; bringing premier institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) to every state; job creation; a development model for farmers; water grids; a national optical fibre network; and the introduction of bullet trains as part of a much-needed modernization of Indian Railways.

“Modi seems to be making all the right statements," said an Asian diplomat based in New Delhi who declined to be identified. “We are hoping that the BJP manages to get the number of seats it needs to form a government with less dependence on regional partners so that these ideas can get translated into a reality," the diplomat said. “If India’s investment environment does get more business friendly at attracting foreign and domestic investors, it will be good for India."

The comments underline a shift from the past when Modi was shunned mainly by Western nations for his allegedly turning a blind eye to the 2002 Gujarat riots in which hundreds of people—mostly Muslims—were killed. The US’s refusal to grant Modi a visa in 2005 was seen as a major snub.

A news report this week quoting a US Congressional Research Service report said the US visa ban would be automatically lifted and Modi would enjoy diplomatic immunity if he becomes prime minister. So far, Modi’s international travel has been limited to visits to China in 2011 and Japan in 2012. Both visits were deemed successful by Modi supporters.

The turnaround came with British high commissioner James Bevan visiting Modi in Gujarat in 2012, and in January last year, a group of European diplomats met Modi at the German embassy in New Delhi. The last holdout—former US ambassador Nancy Powell—met Modi in February, nearly five months after he was declared the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. “There was pressure from (our) businesses as well from Indian people in (parliamentary) constituencies to end the embargo. There was also a recognition that Modi could become a major player in the Indian domestic political scene," a European diplomat, who did not want to be named, said recently.

In terms of foreign policy, Modi is seen as untried and untested. His election speeches have given few hints on how he plans to manage relations with major countries. In February, he warned China, with which India has a long-running border dispute, to shed its “mindset of expansionism". And previously, Modi has slammed Pakistan for attacks by Islamist militants in India.

A Modi adviser, who did not want to be named, said a Modi government could be expected to have a more “muscular" approach to foreign policy though it would not be “confrontationist".

Pakistan’s political and military establishment would take “some months" to assess Modi should he come to power, said Ayesha Siddiqua, an Islamabad-based political analyst. “The political and military establishment will be watching him (Modi) with deep interest. In their view, the experience with the first BJP government under (then prime minister Atal Behari) Vajpayee was good," Siddiqua said by phone from Islamabad.

A critical determinant of India-Pakistan relations, though, will be communal relations in India, said Siddiqua, referring to the majority Hindus that Modi and his BJP appeal to and the minority Muslims. “If there are tensions between communities, then it will have an impact on India-Pakistan relations" with extremist elements in Pakistan drawing support for their anti-India campaigns from these incidents, she said.

The real test for India-Pakistan relations under a Modi-led government would come if there was a major terror strike in India, said Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow at Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank. “Having criticized Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for being too soft on Pakistan, Modi would be under pressure to respond strongly in the face of a terrorist provocation," she said in emailed comments.

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