External Affairs

Adding Up the Pluses and Minuses of Modi’s ‘Personalised’ Diplomacy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang take a 'selfie' together in Shanghai, May 2015.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang take a ‘selfie’ together in Shanghai, May 2015.

Seldom has a new government in India excited so much interest internationally as the present one led by Prime Minister Modi. Modi’s foreign policy, in particular, has been the object of both attention and comment, most of it positive. The Prime Minister in his first year has also been viewed as someone anxious to alter the contours of India’s diplomacy.

How does all this stand up to closer scrutiny? A definite plus is the impression that he has imparted a new dynamism to the country’s foreign policy. This is, without doubt, the outcome of the Prime Minister’s hectic schedule of foreign visits to countries across four continents. Another plus is the economic outcomes. These have greatly exceeded expectations. Regarding strategic imperatives, however, it would seem that the Prime Minister has under-performed during his first year.

Belying conventional wisdom, Modi has surprised all those who had viewed him as a novitiate in diplomacy. His success appears to be in the special brand of ‘personalised diplomacy’ he has practiced, aimed at creating the maximum impact – telegenic and otherwise. Implicit also, has been the teleological message of fundamentally transforming India’s foreign policy.

Messenger as message

The Prime Minister projects an image of the ‘Líder Máximo’ , or ‘Maximum Leader’, to borrow a phrase Latin Americans use to describe strongmen. The rise of the ‘emblematic’ leader – something that India has never quite witnessed till date – is a first in Indian politics. Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were all highly charismatic leaders, but none of them believed that style and the messenger are as important as the message. This could well become Prime Minister Modi’s most significant contribution to India’s diplomatic discourse. Additionally, the Prime Minister sees great virtue in suitably ‘packaging’ results to amplify outcomes.

Narendra Modi’s perception of ‘summitry’ is again quite different from that of past leaders. He has concentrated on improving his personal-level chemistry with foreign leaders, rather than getting embroiled in the nitty-gritty of details, seen as better left to Foreign Office mandarins. The ‘chai-pe-charcha’ concept has consequently been elevated to the level of a diplomatic doctrine.

The philosophy underlying this approach is that the chemistry of relationships rather than diplomatic skills tends to dictate end results. In this, the Prime Minister is, perhaps, being prescient. The India-US nuclear deal is testimony to the special relationship established between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W. Bush. Likewise, the special relationships established between a trinity of Japanese leaders – Yoshiro Mori, Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe – with their Indian counterparts paved the way for the current warmth between Modi and Abe.

The Prime Minister has employed several stratagems to ensure the success of his foreign visits. Each visit has been a carefully crafted exercise with attention being paid to the smallest details. A brilliant example of this was Modi’s  visit to the US in September 2014. It not only enabled him to display his special brand of ‘personalised diplomacy’, but ensured that the Prime Minister’s image became the crucial selling point, linking his persona with outcomes. Utilising the Indian diaspora in various countries to act as the vanguard of India’s ‘soft power’ offensive has been another significant initiative.

Economic outcomes and trade matters have been the most successful aspects of the Prime Minister’s foreign visits to date. Promises of deals following his US visit – both from the side of the US government and private investors – have amounted to nearly $45 billion. Japan has committed $35 billion in public and private investment financing over the next five years. Most recently in Beijing, agreement was reached regarding 26 deals at an estimated value of over $28 billion. Likewise, business and trade initiatives with countries like France and Germany have greatly expanded.

Lack of strategic vision

On the strategic front, however, matters have not quite panned out as hoped. The pursuit of an ‘activist neighbourhood policy’ has deservedly merited high praise. The response from the neighbours has been warm but it would be a euphuistic excess to claim that it has transformed the neighbourhood into India’s ‘zone of influence’. Clearly, ‘personalised diplomacy’ has its limitations. Also, it would be useful for Indian leaders to take a leaf from Deng Xiaoping’s advice of ‘hiding the light under the bushel’. Sensitivities in the neighbourhood tend to be high, and an excess of publicity can have a negative impact.

The Prime Minister’s energy-driven top down approach comes with some built-in disadvantages. It has produced a certain lack of attention to detail, even when summit-level talks take place. Wise statesmen know that the fine print in diplomatic documents are as important as the main text.

The major failing, however, has been the absence of a grand strategic vision. This weakness is most evident in areas of enduring interest to India, such as Afghanistan and West Asia on the one hand and Pakistan and China on the other, leading to a serious strategic void.

In Afghanistan, India’s influence has sharply declined in recent months. Under President Ashraf Ghani, Pakistan and China have gained ascendancy at India’s expense – and to its detriment. In West Asia, which is rocked by conflicts, India – which has 6 million nationals in the region – is almost absent. In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan appears to have succeeded in reversing the substantial progress made by India during 2006-2010. The impending US-Iran nuclear agreement has driven Saudi Arabia still closer to Pakistan, the reasons for which are all too obvious. Iran, the longtime friend of India appears to be tilting towards China, confining India to the margins.

Thucydides’ trap

The lack of strategic vision has made matters specially difficult while dealing with our two biggest neighbours – Pakistan and China. A perceived affinity between India and the US has helped to further cement China-Pakistan relations. This, in turn, is aggravating the existing mistrust between India and China, and India and Pakistan. Any further drift could lead to unforeseen consequences.

Dealing with Pakistan – which displays “increasing state weakness, married to a propensity for risk taking and reliance on sub-state violence” – demands combining strength, including military strength, with softer options. A well-considered strategic vision alone will enable India to arrive at a proper mix of hard and soft options. The current kneejerk reactions to Pakistan’s provocations, including resort to asymmetric tactics, need to be avoided.

Dealing with China is even more complex, as it is very much like dealing with the unknown. Bonhomie in public means little. One needs to look out for signals and nuances which are more reliable than protocol statements. In this respect, the recent Chinese largesse of $46 billion involving the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking western China with the Gwadar port in Pakistan through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, contains a clear message for India. Apart from signifying the robustness of the ‘all weather friendship’ between Beijing and Islamabad, it marks a new low point in Sino-Indian relations, with a total disregard for India’s concerns about violation of its sovereignty.

China has clearly demonstrated that it is determined to expand its sphere of influence – which can only be at India’s expense. More importantly, there is grave danger in an aggressive China combining forces with a dysfunctional Pakistan, seeking the containment of India. Checkmating this would require far more than ‘shuttle diplomacy’. It underscores the importance, and the need, for a well-calibrated strategic vision.

‘Managing the peaceful rise’ of China should, hence, be the main imperative and the centrepiece of any new strategic vision. The current premium on straight line communication may not yield the desired results. So also, reducing the complex to the extremely simple will not bear fruit. Simplicity has a pervasive clarity of its own, and contains many hidden dangers. Refusing to see the complexities – or failing to employ a strategic prism – can prove counter-productive. As China’s capabilities increase, India would do well to understand where Beijing is headed so as to avoid falling into ‘Thucydides Trap’ – specially that of over-reacting. In his second year as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi would do well to set himself the task of creating a new strategic vision.

M.K. Narayanan, is a former National Security Advisor and former Governor of West Bengal