There’s little doubt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought a distinctive new aesthetic to Indian diplomacy. Less noticed, though, is that he could also be bringing in a new purposefulness and focus. His global outreach isn’t about showmanship alone. In the course of his eight-day tour of Germany, France and Canada, the prime minister played the role of advocate of Indian business — pushing global corporations to make the investments needed to realise his vision of a manufacturing economy. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, pro-business as he was, had been squeamish about putting his personal reputation behind promises to potential investors. Indeed, foreign investors frequently complained the UPA government was sometimes hostile, and often indifferent. Modi, who has had to play hardscrabble to draw industry to Gujarat in the past, appears to understand what business is looking for, even if it still remains to be seen whether and how much he can deliver on it.
The prime minister’s commitment, at a technology trade fair in Hanover, that he would ensure a way is found to cut through regulatory snarls and corruption, is just the message potential investors have been waiting to hear. Modi made it clear that he sees global business as an integral part of India’s march forward — a message that Indian leaders have, in recent years, been reluctant to articulate aloud. “For me”, he said, “‘Make in India’ is not a brand, nor is it simply a slogan… It is a new national movement.” The objective, he underlined, was to create “a stable economic environment that inspires confidence at home and abroad”.
It’s this stated vision, not the purchase of Rafale combat jets from France or uranium from Canada, that promises to mark Modi’s foreign policy: those, after all, are part of well-developed traditions. Modi’s outreach to the Indian diaspora, unprecedented in scale — and, some might carp, bling — draws from the same sets of concerns. Indian-origin businesspeople in the US and Europe are significant not only because of the wealth they may bring home, but because their actions will be a barometer for global firms’ own investment decisions. The prime minister’s success will eventually lie in his ability to deliver, at home, on the promises he has made investors abroad. But the long-overdue realisation that India’s domestic progress is linked to how it conducts its foreign policy marks an important moment in an evolving strategic vision.