Behind the polite speeches, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ongoing visit has provided India’s leaders a brutal education in the limits of dramaturgical diplomacy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performances on the world stage have been carefully crafted to project to global audiences the idea of India as it would like to be seen: energetic, vibrant, raring-to-do-business. Yet, the limited yields from Merkel’s visit demonstrate that surround-sound, high-definition performances can achieve only so much. Two months ago, India called off talks on a free trade agreement long under negotiation with the European Union, to protest measures taken against GVK Pharma. The FTA would have allowed enhanced market access for German industries, from automobiles to wine, and given Indian software engineers enhanced rights to work in that country. Merkel hoped her visit would help accelerate progress on the India-EU FTA. Instead, she was faced with an impasse, and is believed to have made her displeasure known. Now, the European Union is turning its energies to the under-negotiation Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, relegating the long-stalled India FTA down its list of priorities. India has got some consolation prizes out of the Merkel visit — like a pledge of $1 billion for non-conventional energy — but these are small change. Evidently, giant rallies of fawning non-resident Indians aren’t a substitute for nuts-and-bolts negotiation.
Alongside the unhappy fate of the India-EU trade negotiations, is a larger question of what global leadership actually means. Faced with a gargantuan tide of refugees from West Asia, Merkel made a historic decision to allow in hundreds of thousands in need — bucking political criticism from her right flanks — to earn Germany international respect. For all the talk of regional leadership, the Modi government’s record is less-than-luminous. India’s relationship with Nepal is close to rock-bottom; and dialogue with Pakistan deadlocked. The prime minister hasn’t visited strategic partner Afghanistan — nor used Indian influence to defuse the growing crisis in the Maldives.
It isn’t hard to make a list of what India could do, but hasn’t done. Though the prime minister might have secured a temple for Indian expatriates in the United Arab Emirates, the government has shown an extraordinary unwillingness to step up to base in West Asia, where the country has huge strategic equities — by running hospitals or refugee camps in crisis-hit Iraq, for example. In Afghanistan, key to balancing Pakistan in the region, there have been no new initiatives to provide strategic assistance. Prime Minister Modi needs, urgently, to recognise that heft in international affairs doesn’t derive from messaging, however powerful, but from real action.