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Narendra Modi to use courtship by world leaders to promote India’s growth

LiveMint logoLiveMint 23-05-2014 Andrew MacAskill

New Delhi: Narendra Modi, who until recently was treated as a pariah by the US and UK, suddenly finds himself the object of affection of world leaders embroiled in disputes from Ukraine to the South China Sea.

Since winning the biggest Indian electoral mandate in 30 years last week, Prime Minister-designate Modi has spoken twice on the phone with US President Barack Obama, became one of three Twitter users followed by Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and pledged to make relations with Russia even stronger. China’s state-run Global Times newspaper published an op-ed column saying he’s likely to be India’s Nixon.

“Modi is the man of the moment,” said Raja Menon, a security analyst at the National Maritime Foundation in New Delhi who was formerly India’s assistant chief of naval staff. “Modi is an economic animal, and he will make India’s growth the chief factor in his foreign policy.”

Modi will need to balance his call for stronger borders with nuclear-armed neighbours Pakistan and China against a need to boost gross domestic product (GDP) in Asia’s third-biggest economy from near a decade low. He comes to power as Japan and Southeast Asian countries are seeking to counter the rise of China, which in turn is strengthening ties with Russia amid its standoff with the US and Europe over Ukraine.

“India will try to play a balanced game,” said Rory Medcalf, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and a former Australian diplomat in India. “India doesn’t want to take sides, especially in a competition between the US and China.”

Invitations

China is India’s largest trade partner, with two-way trade valued at $49.5 billion in April to December 2013, according to India’s commerce ministry. The US was No. 2 at $45.9 billion.

After anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat, the state that Modi has governed since 2001, UK and US officials refused to meet with him. The US denied him a visa after human rights groups accused him of not moving to halt the carnage. Modi has repeatedly denied the accusations and a Supreme Court-appointed panel found no evidence he gave orders that prevented assistance from reaching those being attacked.

In an attempt to enhance engagement in a region with long-simmering hostilities, Modi invited the leaders of India’s neighbours, including rival Pakistan, to attend his inauguration on 26 May. Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have accepted the unprecedented offer. Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif has yet to decide whether he will attend.

Seeking investment

“It demonstrates very clearly that Modi’s priority in foreign policy will be addressing regional issues,” said Dipankar Banerjee, founding director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi and a retired army major general. “As of now it seems his heart is in the right place reaching out constructively.”

“Modi also is likely to practice business-focused diplomacy as he seeks to attract overseas investment to improve the country’s infrastructure and kick-start the economy,” according to Hardeep Singh Puri, 62, India’s former United Nations envoy and a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

During his time as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi visited nations including Japan, South Korea and China to promote investment in the state. About 100 Japanese companies, mostly auto makers, promised to invest in Gujarat by fiscal 2016, according to a May 2013 statement.

“Modi is likely to use his old ties to expand economic ties wherever possible,” D.S. Rajan, director of the Chennai Centre for China studies who also worked in India’s cabinet secretariat, said in a phone interview on 21 May.

Pakistan, China

He will also face more traditional geopolitical challenges. Territorial disputes continue to strain India’s relations with Pakistan and China. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan later this year risks destabilizing a regional neighbour in which both India and Pakistan have strategic interests.

“Modi’s overarching goal will be to steer India into a center of power of its own instead of getting stuck on a pendulum swinging between two major powers,” Sreeram Chaulia, Dean of the Jindal School for International Affairs near New Delhi said in a phone interview. “He needs to engineer a kind of acknowledged identity as a great power that’s supported by economic growth and regional stability.” Bloomberg

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