Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s journey to Sweden, London and Berlin last week showcased India’s growing external opportunities. The Modi government’s continuing foreign policy innovation is reflected in the launch of a new forum, the Nordic Five, and revival of an old one, the Commonwealth. The visit by an Indian PM to Stockholm after nearly three decades provided an occasion to collectively engage with the five Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. With a combined population of barely 27 million, the Nordic Five have the world’s 11th largest GDP. Despite much goodwill for India and a remarkable back story of engagement with these countries, the Nordic group had simply fallen off India’s political radar.
The rediscovery of the Nordics is part of the PM’s more intensive outreach to Europe over the last year and more. It is underlined by the last-minute addition of Berlin to Modi’s itinerary. Europe’s economic depth, shared political values and its eagerness for stronger political ties with Delhi amidst the rise of China, assertion of Russia and growing uncertainty about America’s future are opening up new possibilities for Indian foreign policy. If Stockholm and Berlin are about India drilling deeper into Europe, the PM’s visit to London was about Brexit — the United Kingdom’s breakup with the old continent. As Britain repositions itself in the world, it is looking to revitalise the Commonwealth and deepen ties with India. Modi’s Delhi reversed the traditional Indian disdain for the Commonwealth as a colonial relic. The PM sees the Commonwealth as a ready-made forum for India’s outreach to the three-score small island states in the 53-member Commonwealth. In London, Modi and British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed to relaunch the Commonwealth and recast the bilateral relationship around the theme of expanding technological cooperation.
The PM’s impressive diplomatic advances, however, were marred by the large number of protests in London and growing criticism of his seeming indifference to social and political turbulence at home. The traditional divisions on gender, caste, religion, region, and approach to modernity — all of which have accentuated in the last four years — have triggered these protests by sections of the Indian diaspora as well as civil society groups. Many in the official circles in the West, who had muted their voices in hope of economic gain in ties with Modi’s India, are finding it hard to hide their disappointment with India’s trade and investment policies. The PM should be aware that the current Western grumbling in private could in no time become a flood of international criticism and undermine his substantial foreign policy achievements.