Kevin Costner’s famous line, “Build it and they will come”, seems to have proved true of Narendra Modi’s India in the making. Both friends and foes are making a beeline for India, not just out of curiosity, but also out of a conviction that exciting things are ahead and they should have a piece of the pie. Needless to say, the same rush to Delhi was seen in 1977 and 1998, but a mix of curiosity and anxiety, rather than excitement, was writ large on the faces of visitors then.
Andrei Gromyko, the veteran foreign minister of the USSR, was visibly pale when he arrived in Delhi in 1977. But the then foreign minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, put him at ease by assuring him that though the faces that greeted him were new, the friendship had not changed. Bill Richardson, the US ambassador to the UN, came as Bill Clinton’s special envoy in 1998, soon after the firing of the Ghauri missile by Pakistan, and misread Vajpayee’s smile when he was asked whether he would test nuclear weapons. The news of the tests came soon after Richardson returned to Washington to report that all was well with Delhi.
This time, there is less anxiety and more hope. First, because it is not a hotchpotch coalition that has come to power in India. Second, it is well known that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a definite agenda to build an economic power in collaboration with the world, which would mean further liberalisation of the economy. The surprise invitation to SAARC leaders and his conversations with them have strengthened the impression that changes in foreign policy will be thoughtful, purposeful and gradual. World leaders must feel comfortable with the signals emanating from the new government in Delhi.
Not surprisingly, the first important visitor came from the US. Though Nisha Desai Biswal is only an assistant secretary of state, equivalent to our joint secretaries, hers is a political appointment and she is the point person for India in the US State Department. One of her predecessors, Robin Raphel, famously downgraded relations by saying that India was not on her radar, as she felt slighted by India. Another, Karl F. Inderfurth, transformed India-US relations for the better during the Clinton years. Biswal’s Gujarati origin is accidental, but her visit was obviously intended to pave the way for Modi’s visit to Washington, which will be crucial. The arrival of a new head of mission to take care of matters till the new ambassador is here is also an important signal. The prime minister also launched a book born out of an India-US collaboration (Bibek Debroy and Ashley J. Tellis), called Getting India Back on Track, expressing appreciation for the role of think tanks in development.
If Americans come, the Chinese cannot be far behind. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi came as the special envoy of President Xi Jinping and ensured that he was received not only by his counterpart, but also by the prime minister and the president. Unlike the Americans, the Chinese have had a history of good relations with Modi, resulting in sizeable Chinese investments in Gujarat. The Chinese see Modi as an Indian Deng Xiaoping. On the eve of his meeting with Wang Yi, Modi said he would emulate the “skill, scale and speed” of the Chinese. But both sides were aware of the problems at the national level. Commercial relations could not be separated from the political legacy, either. Further complications arose with the presence of Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister-in-exile of Tibet, among SAARC leaders, reportedly as a guest of the BJP.
Wang Yi made the right noises, but on the all-important issue of the border, he was quite forthright about an indefinite deadline for finding a solution. He also claimed that there had been peace and stability on the border “on the whole” for 30 years, brushing aside the number of incidents China had created. Trade and economic relations are also not free of trouble. The bilateral trade is in China’s favour and the massive Chinese involvement in the Indian economy is fraught with dangers. But contacts will continue and as many as six high-level meetings are envisaged for the next year, including a visit by the Chinese president.
Many others, notably, the Russians, the French, the Germans and the British will also be interested in visiting India. Still more will want a stake in India’s expected growth. Corporate leaders must have already arrived in Mumbai and Delhi to look for opportunities in the liberated Indian market.
The roads to Delhi are open to traffic both ways, and Modi is expected to visit Brazil, Japan, the US and Myanmar, to name just a few. His engagement with the world will be as intense as his efforts to manage internal affairs. The reports of sexual violence in India, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, have raised international concern. But by dealing with it effectively, through “zero tolerance for violence against women”, as the president declared recently, India could dispel these fears and reassure those who long to travel to Delhi and build partnerships.
The writer, a former ambassador and governor for India at the IAEA, is executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council