Looking eastwards from Turkey towards Japan, you notice one thing. India is the only landmass with an unbroken democracy. It is the world’s largest, with more voters than people in the EU and US combined.
This intrinsic value has helped New Delhi make large overtures to others and secure ground on foreign policy, thus staving off various rounds of rage and criticism within and outside India, most recently when it abrogated Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. The world now recognizes India’s worth as a democratic nation in a dangerous neighbourhood and wants it as an ally. India wants global engagement in its self-interest. Key world leaders are listening in the self-interest of their own countries, perhaps realizing that givers of lessons must first look at their own backyards.
Narendra Modi 2.0 is weaving an interesting tapestry of concentric circles and squares around India’s interests. Foreign policy is multifaceted, buffeted by events driven by big military and economic powers and coalitions. In recent years, as multilateralism weakens, leaving gaping holes filled either by strong-armed unilateralism or plain indifference, India holds its own, belonging to no bloc. Pushing its way forward is an achievement. People want to know what India thinks, not what India “also" thinks.
The bold move on Article 370 will remain a major 100-day marker of Modi 2.0. There’s a robust debate on it in our democracy, but the message internationally is this: Religion is out of India’s foreign policy language. This allows New Delhi to sit at the high table without commas. Pakistan’s one-point foreign policy, Kashmir, is null and void, its complaints against India falling on deaf years. There is talk of US Congressional hearings on Kashmir, but that’s par for the course. New Delhi has managed to quieten US President Donald Trump on Kashmir, who now expects India to help him save face as American troops leave Afghanistan.
“If one were to list key aspects of Modi 2.0’s achievements in foreign policy in 100 days, it would be the success which the government has achieved in balancing the country’s interests between Washington and Moscow and rekindling relationships with Brussels," says Samir Saran, president of the New Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation. India has also stepped up its goodwill and exchanges around the Arabian Sea and beyond. Maldives, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia recognise India’s capacity as a major trader. India continues to maintain its deep historical ties with Iran, despite Washington stepping on its toes to snap ties with Tehran.
Trump is all about Trump and keeping him engaged in India’s interests is a tough call. He sees India as a large market for American goods and services and India sees itself as Washington’s critical ally in the region. Historically, markets are competitors, not allies, and while the penny has dropped with American officials, Trump is hopefully beginning to grasp the realities of why he needs India (read Afghanistan and China).
At the time of writing, Modi is on a visit to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Modi have given their bilateral meetings top billing, the product of years of work. Russia is India’s all-weather friend, a country that appreciates what Eurasia is all about. Both countries are cooperating on a host of issues, ranging from technology to diplomacy.
India’s interaction with Putin is also a direct message to the EU, with which New Delhi is renewing its vows. The recent G7 summit in Biarritz, France, made it clear that the EU needs fresh leadership. Germany’s Angela Merkel is no longer the voice that Europe and the world listen to. Host and French President Emmanuel Macron was on a war of words with his UK counterpart Boris Johnson. Italy has already broken the EU’s lakshman rekha by signing trade deals with China, and Japan, like Canada, follows rather than leads the G7. Trump wants the EU to bring Russia back to the G7, making it the original G8, an idea that has made others, especially Merkel, balk. Scars of the world’s bloodiest wars run deep.
Modi arrived at the G7 as an invitee, swiftly sewing up loose ends necessary to call out Pakistan-driven terrorism. In a joint declaration, Modi and Macron agreed to work together to root out terrorist safe havens and infrastructure, “disrupting terrorist networks and their financing channels, and halting cross border movement of terrorists belonging to Al Qaeda, Daesh/ISIS, Jaesh-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahedeen, Lashkar-e-Tayabba and their affiliates as well as terrorist groups threatening peace and security in South Asia and the Sahel region". Terrorism, they said, cannot be justified on any grounds, not even religion. A few hours later, the Asia Pacific Group of the G8’s Financial Action Task Force blacklisted Pakistan for failing to comply with its conditions on money laundering and terrorism. Clearly, countries that export terror cannot be part of the high table.
India’s opportunity on the world stage comes at a time when alliances are being redefined and finger-pointers are being called out. There is the EU language, the US language, the Russian language, and the Chinese language. India has entered with a language of its own. It’s time to weave a new idiom and a new set of engagements that represent the world’s largest democracy. Indians expect nothing less of Modi 2.0.
Chitra Subramaniam is an award-winning journalist and author