For a neophyte in the world of international politics, Narendra Modi has surprised both friends and detractors with some impressive diplomatic acumen. By inviting the leaders of neighbouring countries to attend his swearing-in as prime minister of India next Monday, Modi has challenged the entrenched negative perceptions, at home and abroad, about his worldview. Despite his rhetorical restraint during the election campaign and the moderate tone of the BJP’s manifesto on foreign policy, it was widely assumed that Modi would follow a muscular foreign policy. The hardliners in Delhi’s strategic community were both anticipating and advocating that Modi stop making nice to the neighbours. The Western media, which presented him as a Hindu nationalist and Pakistan-baiter, had whipped up concerns around the world that a nuclear confrontation between Delhi and Islamabad was inevitable if Modi became the PM.
Modi’s terrific move even before he takes charge as India’s PM should help generate a more realistic appreciation of India’s foreign policy trajectory in the coming years. Modi has sought to project a balanced approach to the neighbours ever since he was anointed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate last year. While expressing concerns about cross-border terrorism from Pakistan or illegal migration from Bangladesh, he also underlined the importance of joining hands with the neighbours in fighting poverty and underdevelopment in the subcontinent. It was easy to be cynical about Modi’s positive sentiments during the election campaign. But a realist analysis would reveal that his priorities are to renew India’s economic growth, expand the base of the BJP, and get himself re-elected five years down the road. None of this would be possible if Modi plunges the nation into a war with Pakistan and intensifies quarrels with the other neighbours.
Modi’s unexpected diplomatic gesture has been well received in the subcontinent and beyond. Some leaders have confirmed their participation. Some with prior commitments might not be able to make it. The prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, who might be dissuaded by the Pakistan army from travelling to Delhi, could probably send a high-level representative. What matters in the end, however, is the prospect of a more self-assured government in Delhi that is ready to engage the neighbours without standing on protocol and precedent. Unlike his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, Modi, as PM, must travel frequently to the neighbouring countries, including Pakistan. Routinisation of such diplomatic engagement will not solve all of India’s problems with its neighbours. But it will certainly create a more conducive environment for purposeful negotiations on outstanding issues.