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Hitting the Ground Swearing

The Prime Minister made his intentions clear right at the beginning. The results of his breathless diplomacy can be seen in economic gains.
with YP Rajesh Print Edition: Oct 26, 2014
Hitting the Ground Swearing
Courting the US: Narendra Modi and Barack Obama shake hands after a meeting in the White House on September 30 Photo: Brendan Smialowski/ Getty images

In the beginning there was the swearing in. A bevy of leaders from neighbouring countries descended, for the first time, to watch an Indian Prime Minister take oath. That set off a chain of events that saw the new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, hold meetings with heads of 15 countries during his first 125 days in office.

The most recent leg of his diplomacy offensive (shall we call it Modissey?) was a five-day rock show of a tour of the United States just on water, since the vegetarian Prime Minister was fasting for the navratras.

But you would find enough meat in there. The US tour was not just about the "May the force be with you" (at New York's Central Park addressing 60,000 young people) and the fist-pumping "Bharat mata ki jai" (Madison Square Garden, where the audience of 18,000 also had 40 members of the US Congress). The Prime Minister found enough time to have breakfast with CEOs of 11 of the biggest companies of the US, who came away convinced that the man deserved a chance. President Barack Obama and his Cabinet agreed to revitalise the India-US relationship and tackle everything from terror to trade.

Hours before Modi flew out of Washington on September 30, MasterCard CEO Ajay Banga said many members of the US India Business Council, which he chairs, had shown interested in investing a combined $41 billion in India in the next two or three years. That came the day after global investment management corporation BlackRock accepted Modi's invitation to organise an investment conference in India early next year to bring investors from around the world.

Club that with the gains of the previous meetings with heads of states in India and abroad, most notably the agreements with Nepal, Bhutan, Japan, and China, and we could be looking at the most economic gains made through external relations in the first 125 days of a Prime Minister.

There will always be those who would nitpick till the cows came home: how much of China's promise will really materialise, are there any concrete business deals with the US, and so on. But there is no denying that India is claiming a place on the global stage that Modi's much-loved three Ds of democracy, demography and demand might deserve.

Gone are the days when the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on his first visit to the US in 1949, was thought of by American President Harry S. Truman as "irritating". The year 2014 is not only a different era but also a different world, what with the Indian American community making its presence felt in many spheres, including as CEOs of some of the largest companies.

Says Milan Vaishnav of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: "This US administration from the President to the Secretary of State on down is focused like a laser on this summit between India and the United Sates." It would not be realistic to expect deals and dollars. "Modi wants capital and technology. Now, the United Sates, unlike the Japanese or the Chinese, as a government, is not well-placed to provide large amounts of capital - that's simply not how our government is set up. So then all the emphasis is on technology, and there we very quickly move to defence."

Perhaps as important as capital and technology is the mindset. "Economic diplomacy is not new to India, it started in 1991. Our 'Look East Policy' was all about reaching out to other countries. But in the last four years India had completely fallen off the world map. Modi is trying to revive the India story," says Sanjaya Baru, Director for Geo-Economics and Strategy at the International Institute of Strategic Studies.

Surjit Bhalla, Managing Director of Oxus Research and Investments, too sees clear gains. "The message going out to the world is that India has changed."

There is no denying that India is claiming a place on the global stage that Modi's much-loved three ds of democracy, demography and demand might deserve

It is a little more than that, according to DK Srivastava, Chief Policy Advisor at consultancy firm EY. "India always wanted the US to take a pro-India position against Pakistan. However, Modi has made it clear that it doesn't matter what stand the US takes on Pakistan as long as India gets economic gains."

Amid the hopes, though, Baru strikes a note of sobriety. "India stands to gain if we are able to sort out our domestic issues."

No doubt, there are many of those to be addressed. Labour laws, for one. Infrastructure, perhaps the bigger one. It worries many that there are doubts over the intellectual bandwidth of the government. Though the Prime Minister, during his election campaign, highlighted the need to take the states along, he is yet to call a meeting with Chief Ministers, who play a critical role in facilitating and enabling cross-country and cross-border trade.

And then there is the feeling among many that they have heard all this before.

Maybe. But not so eloquently. And not by so many. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee went to the US for the first time after becoming Prime Minister, his largest public meeting drew a crowd of 3,000.

Modi has hit the ground running. And that's a start.

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