June 3, 2014
While Narendra Modi’s immediate task will be to focus on bailing India out of its current economic crisis, it would be a mistake to ignore the massive shifts the world has undergone while India was caught up in election fever
Sometime in 2005, goes the story at the Indian Embassy in Beijing, the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi got in touch as he wanted to visit China and study business and investment opportunities. The Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi was cold to the idea, given the taint of the Gujarat riots of 2002, while the Embassy was unsure of what kind of protocol Mr. Modi could receive as no dignitary was available to meet him.
Mr. Modi’s reply startled them as he said his was a “study tour,” and if they wished to, they could treat it as a personal visit. Officials describe how Mr. Modi arrived a few months later, on his own, armed with only a notebook and pen. Gujarati businessmen helped open a few doors for him, but for the most part Mr. Modi travelled to state capitals and economic zones like Shenzhen, taking furious notes. At the end of his visit, Mr. Modi said that he had been struck by three things — the importance of economic diplomacy, the marvel of urban planning (his plan for the Sabarmati riverfront possibly came from here), and the fact that China was hampered most by the lack of spoken English in the country.
Driven by trade
Each of these impressions has had lasting impact on Mr. Modi, who made four official visits after the first one to China, and was even received in the Great Hall of the People in 2011. He has made it clear that his foreign policy will be driven by trade and boosting investment in India. Mr. Modi’s ideas include getting Indian States to drive investment by engaging with foreign countries directly (à la ‘Vibrant Gujarat’), having an economic officer in every Indian embassy (a hint that non-service officers and businessmen will be enlisted for the job), and a key goal, according to reports from his team, of raising India’s ranking in the World Bank’s “Ease of doing business” index from the current 134 to less than 100.
Global power structures
As Chief Minister, Mr. Modi was able to keep the focus on business in bilateral ties. In the midst of the border row with Chinese troops and the anger over stapled visas for example, he paid a visit to Beijing and Shanghai, to speak of R&D investment from Huawei and a deep sea port for Gujarat. Despite tensions at the Line of Control in July 2013, Mr. Modi had an official delegation from Pakistan to discuss solar energy projects. On visits abroad too, he has confined himself to countries where business opportunities are most viable — China, Japan, Israel, Singapore and Australia. But for America’s visa ban, the United States would undoubtedly have been high on that list. The new External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, has certainly taken the same cues from here. As she kicks off her bilateral meetings with a visit from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi this weekend, she has yet to confirm whether she will give any time to the U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Desai Biswal, at the same time.