Doing just that
Narendra Modiís convincing win in Gujarat will have its impact on Indiaís external affairs more than any state election in the country in at least three decades. No other chief minister now in power is anywhere nearly as well-known as Modi is in the Asian territorial divisions of foreign ministries in key capitals of the world. No chief minister in recent memory, other than Modi, has been analysed or interpreted in the strategic communities across the world that dissect and interpret India.
Because Modiís enemies have demonized him in the last five years, there have been efforts behind closed doors, among those who provide key inputs into decisionmaking in Washington, Beijing and Moscow, to size him up and develop a more objective profile of the man and the politician. Ironically, the bleeding hearts among the non-governmental organizations and in sections of the media, who have just stopped short of stamping the Nazi swastika on his visage, have given his supporters an opportunity to highlight his record as chief minister of what is undeniably one of Indiaís most vibrant states. Modiís supporters worldwide used that opportunity fully during the campaign for assembly elections in Gujarat.
The refusal of an American visa is what is now remembered by the public about the Gujarat chief ministerís foray onto the global stage. But that episode creates a distorted version of Gujaratís record in international relations under Modiís leadership.
Chief ministers in India love to travel overseas and it is common for them to take along family members or relatives. Many politicians, more so those in power in the states, treat such trips as junkets, financed by non-resident Indians from their states and by taxpayers. That is what I have observed since the Seventies when I have covered Indian politicians during my postings abroad.
With rare exceptions, chief ministers go abroad without any credible or structured agenda. They talk to NRIs as if it is the duty of overseas Indians to invest back home. In Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver, for at least a decade, Indian diplomats have dreaded the repeated visits by chief ministers and cabinet ministers from Punjab and Haryana to Canada: every one of these ministers wants to call on members of Canadaís federal or provincial cabinets who are of Punjabi origin. More often than not, these visitors have nothing concrete to discuss with the Canadians. They only want to chit-chat, for which the successful politicians among the Indo-Canadians have, increasingly, neither the time nor the inclination.
Even chief ministers and deputy chief ministers from a state like Karnataka ó which has a significantly better reputation for handling NRI affairs ó have quarrelled with Indians in Silicon Valley who resented the visitorsí attitude that smacked of condescension. At one such meeting in Silicon Valley some years ago, one NRI was wildly cheered when he bluntly told a visiting Karnataka chief minister that he had invited himself into their midst and asked the chief executive of the state government to behave himself.
This is not the experience of NRIs alone. A chief minister who was visiting Germany once lost his cool because a major German enterprise which hosted his lunch had not made arrangements for his siesta, but had hurried him along to the next meeting. It was all the more ironic because the CEO of that enterprise had initially refused to meet the chief minister because he had arrived in Germany at short notice and the Indian ambassador, then stationed in Bonn, had to intervene personally to create a slot for the lunch on the CEOís busy calendar.
Modi has been refreshingly different. Not only in content and style, but also in strategy. If Gujarat had been an independent country, the sum and substance of Modiís travels abroad would have drawn a favourable comparison with the economic diplomacy of Singaporeís prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in about the three-and-a-half-years that the junior Lee has been in office.
Many of those abroad to whom Modi has presented his vision of the stateís future are confident that if he is left alone and is not hampered by the Centre, Gujarat will eventually rival some of Chinaís special economic zones, which provided the springboard for the Peopleís Republicís leap into the identity of an emerging economic superpower.
As West Bengal stumbled in its nascent effort to build SEZs and Congress chief ministers competed with each other to divine Sonia Gandhiís inner thoughts on the advisability of SEZs or otherwise, Modi went to Singapore and China recently with definite plans ó packaged for sale abroad ó for nearly a dozen such zones to start with, followed by ideas for a second dozen.
While Indiaís strategic community and sections of the media have been obsessed with the India-United States of America nuclear deal, it has largely escaped their attention that Modi travelled twice to Moscow to cash in on traditional Indo-Russian links, going against the recent fashion in New Delhi of running down such commercial-cum-cultural ties with Russia in an eagerness to suck up to Washington. No one should be surprised if it is Modi who has the last laugh at the Americans, who denied him a visa in a moment of extreme bad judgment and short-sightedness in Washington.
Modi was the first chief minister to grasp the potential of an agreement signed during Vladimir Putinís visit to New Delhi in October 2000: ďThe Agreement between the Government of the Republic of India and the Government of the Russian Federation on the Principles of Cooperation between the Governments of the States and Union Territories of the Republic of India and the Bodies of Executive Authority of the Constitutional Entities of the Russian Federation.Ē Modi recognized that the agreement was full of opportunities. In November 2001, I was witness to Modiís determined efforts in Moscow to use the visit of the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to the Kremlin to build on that umbrella agreement and push through a protocol of cooperation between Gujarat and Russiaís Astrakhan Region.
Why Astrakhan? Some two centuries ago, enterprising traders from Gujarat had established a major commercial presence in the Astrakhan region, Russiaís gateway to the Caspian, with its vast oil wealth and stocks of sturgeon. Not only did they establish their trading presence, many of the Gujarati merchants who went to Astrakhan also stayed put, married local women and made it their new home. Modi, determined to renew that old relationship, has since injected substance into Ahmedabadís sister-city link with Astrakhan. Last year, he went to Astrakhan to renew the 2001 protocol for another five years.
The trade route that Gujarat is trying to revive, from Okha port to Astrakhanís Olya port, could become the shortest trading route between India and Russia. It will be another irony if, in the process, the much-discussed idea of a speedier cargo route between India and Iran is also realized by the man who was refused a visa by the Americans. Iran is bound to be a player in regional trade if this route is operationalized, much to the annoyance of the US, which has constantly tried to block any enhancement of relations between New Delhi and Teheran.
Equally, it will be an irony if Modiís economic diplomacy results in pushing China up to the rank of Indiaís largest trading partner, displacing the US. Two-way trade between India and China is already catching up with the levels of Indo-US trade. If even a fraction of what Modi recently negotiated in the economic powerhouses of Shenzhen and Pudong come to fruition, it will dramatically push up the Sino-Indian economic engagement.
The groundwork that Modi is said to have done in Jurong in Singapore during his visit is said to be impressive. Few states in India have Gujaratís record of external relations based on an equal partnership with foreigners. There are diamond traders from Gujarat in Canadaís most inhospitable terrains which have a wealth of precious stones, Gujarati doctors in the United Kingdom and businessmen across the US. These provide a solid base, stronger and more efficient than anything the ministry of external affairs can offer if Modi decides to launch his own brand of diplomacy on behalf of Gujarat. It is safe to assume that he will do just that in his new term as chief minister.