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Outside In | What the West thinks of Narendra Modi

LiveMint logoLiveMint 15-05-2014 Dipankar De Sarkar

Manmohan Singh has penned his farewell letter to world leaders, including Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Wen Jiabao and Vladimir Putin, thanking them and reminding them of how they worked together.

And before you could say “power flows from the barrel of a gun”, pow, Wen shot off his reply. The two leaders, Wen reminded Singh with touching modesty, had been like “two drivers with steady hands on the wheels, driving in the right direction”.

Great Chinese leaders are famous for their use of metaphors. “Let a hundred flowers bloom,” Chairman Mao purred in 1957 to critics in his Communist party before, presumably, culling the gullible discussants. Deng Xiaoping spoke of flies that came in through open windows to describe what we would call the flowering of an open society.

It’s probably worth India’s time brushing up on some Chinese sayings, for China certainly is set to loom large in the consciousness of the new government. President Xi Jinping—if he has his way—may be one of the early visitors calling on the new prime minister.

China and Japan are said to be high on Narendra Modi’s foreign trade agenda as the man reportedly favours a Look East policy, partly out of necessity, no doubt, the West having dropped a political curtain on him between 2002 and 2012. That bridge has been crossed, but not quite—we’re a step away from clear land. And that makes this as good a time as any for India to try and understand what the West thinks of Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate. The problem is that the world doesn’t know quite what to make of Modi, who is tipped by exit polls to head the next Indian government. One reason for that could be that Modi insists on speaking in Hindi. The other is that Western leaders and diplomats have been unable to evaluate him personally because of the West’s boycott, having to depend, instead, on assessments by corporate leaders and non-resident Indians (NRIs), which, while useful, may have been skewed.

Modi started off on the wrong foot. There were grave misgivings in the West over the 2002 Gujarat riots, and they only deepened when an angry Modi lectured American diplomats about Iraq when questioned about human rights in Gujarat in a meeting in 2006—the first between the two sides since the US revocation of his visa.

But, thanks to the British establishment and some smart lobbying by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sympathizers based in London and the Middle East, Western countries have agreed to end the boycott. The US will host a visit, no doubt, if the exit polls turn out to be correct and Modi ascends to the PM’s office.

Today, the West wants to see two things happen in India: 1. Renewed economic growth to get people interested in India again, and 2. “Liberal and predictable policies of economic governance” in order to sustain that interest.

“The interest in India is on a state-to-state level. Individuals do matter, of course, but our relations have a greater longevity in them,” one Western diplomat told me. “We will all want to deepen our relations—because the last four years, quite frankly, have been frustrating for everyone. Not much was done in these years.”

Most governments want the same thing Indians themselves want—predictability in policymaking so things can move forward, and more open markets. Western pressure on human rights is not likely to ease substantially. Because of what happened in 2002, the Western media has its antennae up looking for things that are illegal. And governments will take newspaper reports and comments seriously.

So how has the English-language press in the West been reporting Modi’s rise? Some with deep cynicism, others cautiously, few with cheer.

This year, The Economist, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Guardian have all expressed degrees of doubt—editorially—over Modi. Their reasons have ranged from fears of a divisive fallout to disruptions in South Asia, crony capitalism and nuclear proliferation.

Here’s a sample:

NYT: “Should Mr. Modi scuttle the “no first use” policy (of nuclear war) if he wins, he would exacerbate tensions with China, which subscribes to the policy, and Pakistan, which does not. The unresolved conflict over Kashmir between India and Pakistan, which have fought three wars since 1947, and the existence of extremist groups in the Afghan-Pakistan border region make any shifts in nuclear policies particularly dangerous.”

Washington Post: “At worst, a Modi government could erode India’s robust democracy and exacerbate religious tensions that in recent years have abated. But India’s political culture is resilient and resistant to such extremism. Though critics had similar worries when the BJP’s first government took office in 1998, they were mostly not borne out. The Obama administration, which in February broke its freeze-out of Mr. Modi, is right to bet that he will follow through on his promise to build the economy rather than picking sectarian fights.”

In Britain, The Guardian sees in Modi’s rise an increasingly familiar global dilemma: what to do when democracies throw up the “wrong kind” of leader, giving the examples closer home of Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Vladimir Putin in Russia and Viktor Orbán in Hungary.

The Economist, ironically for a stridently pro-market magazine, went the furthest and against its own instincts, advised Indians not to vote for Modi.

For all the scepticism, however, it is possible that in a world of growing business opportunities, a whiplashed round of aggressive trading and business diplomacy between India and the Eastern giants may just persuade the US and Western European nations to follow suit.

If he were to become prime minister, Modi should, before long, be travelling to the West. There will be noisy protests most certainly—those flies that Deng warned of—but these won’t be allowed to get anywhere near him. The West is good at keeping visiting dignitaries safe, including those from Israel, China and, after the Iraq war, the US. Heck, there’s even Tony Blair to look after—a small price for keeping the windows open.

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