Modiplomacy Has Hues of Nehruvian Model Abroad and of Indira Gandhi at Home
So far India has heard and seen the Modi Mantra and the Modi Model of Governance. Now we see PM Narendra Modi’s ability to play diplomat by keeping diplomats away. He has always been told “a diplomat tries to arouse the nation whereas a politician lulls it to sleep”. Last week, he reversed the role, literally. While senior Foreign Service officers were lulling themselves and mulling over Indo-China policy, Modi set a few precedents for future diplomats to follow. He inspired his countrymen by making his Chinese guests keep aside fatuous formalities, and engaged them in a new diplomatic genre which displays the maximum but delivers the minimum. Modi converted the visit of Xi Jinping, China’s most power leader, with his elegant wife Peng Liyuan into a stellar marketing event. Though Xi’s visit was at the Indian president’s invitation, Modi ensured that the focus remained on him alone. From the selection of gifts to the dinner menu, everything reflected the unique Mo-Diplomacy. Most state visits are meant to fill diplomatic attendance registers. Many agreements are signed, numerous speeches are delivered and many discussions take place for analysts to give their verdict, which often turns out to be mere chimeras. Xi’s India sojourn, however, was one with a visible difference. Besides being a visual delight, it created global ripples for its timing and tenor. Since Modi has no inhibitions about calling himself a Gujju businessman, he won the hearts of China’s first couple with classy cuisine and a delightful dress circle in Ahmedabad. He replaced ping-pong diplomacy with swing diplomacy, leaving people all over the world guessing about the direction and impact of the Gujarati swing. Modi always thinks of new ideas for governance, conducting dialogues with ministers, corporate leaders and now foreign dignitaries. He sees symbolism and gestures as more powerful, effective instruments to achieve objectives than delivering formal speeches in purple prose. Ever since Modi took over, he has been engaging foreign leaders on his own terms. He is the first Indian PM to hardly ever use written notes for speeches when dealing with international visitors. He knows there is no better weapon than one’s own language to put counterparts on the defensive. For the past few months, Modi has interacted with over two dozen world leaders and has addressed as many meetings, but always in Hindi. His supporters take pride in claiming that Modi is the man of the moment whom the world is waiting to hear, even though it may not understand his language or politics. Modi believes in breaking records and conventions. Besides creating history by winning a parliamentary majority by a genuine non-Congress party for the first time, he has many innovations in diplomacy to his credit. Here are some unique examples of Modi’s swing diplomacy:
• Modi is the first Indian PM who has invited all SAARC heads to attend his swearing-in ceremony. He sprang a surprise on the foreign office by suddenly announcing his decision to unprepared diplomats, as the gesture involved engaging hostile neighbours like Pakistan and the not-so-friendly ones like Sri Lanka and Nepal. But Modi was quite clear in his mind. He wanted to start his innings, not as a PM who just favours peace in the neighbourhood but also one who acts to reclaim India’s regional leadership. With his first move, he disarmed his rivals.
• While his predecessors would always seek to begin their stint with a meeting with the global powers, Modi chose to embrace India’s neighbours to create a club of his own. The idea was to ensure that India would like to work with them in international affairs. Hence his diplomatic itinerary started with Nepal, Bhutan and later Japan.
• To make Gujaratis realise that he hasn’t forgotten them or their interests, Modi became the first PM to welcome the President of China not in New Delhi but in Ahmedabad, and the first PM to do so in a state capital.
• To drive home the point that he is not against the corporate and private sector, he became the first PM to welcome a head of state at the door of a privately owned five-star hotel outside New Delhi.
• Though it is not officially admitted, Modi created the unique convention of giving a personal touch to Chinese President’s visit by arranging it on his own birthday in his own state. No world leader has ever thought of such a novel idea of beaming and bonding.
• If that wasn’t enough, Modi is the first PM to host a lavish state dinner on a riverfront. Xi was served a 50-course Gujarati dinner, along with elegantly choreographed entertainment. About 50 guests, including Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel, attended the event. It was meant to create the ambience for a softer tone for the hard bargaining which followed during the official talks on the next day in New Delhi.
• Modi used his PM status to swing three agreements with China, involving billions of dollars for Gujarat. Never before has a PM presided over the signing ceremonies of MoUs for investment in numerous local fields.
• Modi replaced formality with informality, which is anathema to conventional diplomacy. By taking Xi for a leisurely walk along a specially curated Sabarmati riverfront, Modi set the tone for a personal bonding—rare between a Chinese president and an Indian PM.
• Modi sprang yet another surprise on the Chinese first couple with a Gujarati swing. He himself sat with Xi, and later requested the couple to amuse themselves on the swing so that he could swing a favourable deal for a promised $20 billion FDI in India. Xi appeared so impressed by Modi’s sartorial flair that he decided to wear a Nehru Jacket during his riverfront stroll.
• Since the Chinese First Lady takes pride in promoting Chinese brands and music, Modi ensured that Smriti Irani, the minister-in-waiting for the President, gave as a gift a Gandhi Charkha to underscore the importance of the Mahatma and his fight for Indian-made products. It was both a symbol and warning that India would promote its hand-woven fabrics and prevent China from dumping its sub-standard products on our shores. Modi also ensured that Xi was the first Chinese president to visit the Sabarmati ashram and sign the visitor’s log.
It was obvious that Modi wanted to shift the headquarters of diplomacy from New Delhi to Ahmedabad for this big event. Even the official MEA spokesperson candidly admitted, “It’s no secret that the PM is very keen that India be showcased beyond Delhi. He has made it amply clear that the beauty and magnificence of India beyond Delhi should be seen by visiting foreign leaders, and we are beginning that process with President Xi’s visit.” But it wasn’t just about showcasing Indian beauty and magnificence beyond Delhi; Modi wanted to be the master of ceremonies himself. If Xi had landed in New Delhi, the spotlight would have been on the magnificence of Rashtrapati Bhawan and Hyderabad House. In Gujarat, it was Modi and the Sabarmati riverfront all the way, in all the frames. He is the only Gujarat CM who has visited China five times. He was determined to pay back his former hosts in the same manner and style which was accorded to him. Above all, with his manners, methodology and mechanisms, Modi has defined the road map for converting INCH (Indo-China) into MILES (Mega Indian Long-term Engagement Strategy). Indian Prime Ministers have always taken unusual interests in international relations and Modi is no exception. But there is a difference. Modiplomacy is acquiring the hues of the Nehruvian model abroad and that of Indira Gandhi in domestic politics.
Prabhuchawla@newindianexpress.com; Follow me on Twitter @PrabhuChawla