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 continued…