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PM who doesn’t fly without Gujarat in cabin baggage

- Constant focus on home state in talks with world leaders puzzles foreign envoys
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the BRICS summit in Brazil. (AFP)

New Delhi, July 22: You can take Narendra Modi out of Gujarat but you can’t take Gujarat out of Modi. Not yet, at least.

Nearly two months after taking over as Prime Minister, Modi’s foreign policy pronouncements suggest he carries a hangover from his previous job as Gujarat’s chief minister for 13 years.

Almost every foreign leader — from South America, China, Russia or Japan — who has met Modi these past two months has learnt his views on the ties between not just India and their country but also Gujarat and their country.

The unprecedented focus on a single state in official conversations between the Prime Minister and world leaders has left the capital’s diplomatic enclave abuzz with chatter on whether a country’s ties with Gujarat may influence its relations with India under Modi.

STATE OF THE UNION

“Will countries with greater investments in Gujarat gain over those whose expertise has led them to invest in other states?” a diplomat from a west European nation asked this correspondent last Wednesday. “Should we start investing more in Gujarat?”

These fears may be far-fetched. Many of Modi’s references to Gujarat in his conversations with world leaders have been anecdotes from his days as chief minister, when he travelled abroad frequently for investment and trade pacts. Nowhere has he suggested that nations invest more in Gujarat.

But veteran diplomats, retired and serving, could not recall any previous Prime Minister casting his focus so repeatedly on ties between a single state and virtually every foreign ally in official conversations.

“It’s quite unprecedented, and I can understand how foreign diplomats will try to interpret this,” a retired diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“But it may just be early days for the PM, and perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Some of Modi’s conversations with his global counterparts almost suggest the Prime Minister was representing not just India but also specifically the state of Gujarat.

“We in Gujarat have the feeling that Astrakhan is very close to us,” Modi told Russian President Vladimir Putin at their July 15 meeting in Brazil’s Fortaleza, venue of last week’s Brazil-Russia-Indian-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit.

Modi’s reference to the Russian region of Astrakhan came, according to the transcript of the meeting released by the Kremlin, in the context of his attempts to demonstrate India’s historic ties with Russia.

But Modi mentioned no specific bond between India and Russia apart from Gujarat’s connection with Astrakhan, where the Prime Minister said he had travelled as chief minister.

“We also organised relations between Astrakhan and Gujarat and signed a memorandum of understanding,” Modi told Putin.

“There is a building in Astrakhan called the Indian House. It turns out that in past times, when merchants from Gujarat travelled to Astrakhan, this was where they stayed. Now, people in Astrakhan are very proud to show us how they have preserved and looked after this building.”

When Modi met Chinese President Xi Jinping on July 14, he referred to Chinese tourists to India who travelled as far as Gujarat — yet they also travel farther, to states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

On July 16 evening, when the Prime Minister met the Presidents of 12 South American nations, Gujarat again emerged the link he drew between that continent and India.

“My own home state of Gujarat has many links with South America,” Modi told the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela.

“Ages ago, the Gir cow made its way from Gujarat all the way to Brazil. Today Gujarat accounts for more than half of India’s trade with this wonderful continent.”

Brazil bought Gir cows through the first half of the 20th century, up to 1960, because of their resilience to heat and capacity to generate larger volumes of milk than most other breeds. Today, Brazil exports Gir cow embryos and semen.

When Modi met Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff for a bilateral conversation earlier that day, he had told her that Gujarat had emerged as a prime mover of economic relations with her country.

The Prime Minister recalled France’s assistance in an Ahmedabad conservation project when he met visiting French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in New Delhi on July 1.

Late in June, when a team of senior Japanese parliamentarians met Modi, he gratefully cited how Japan had been a partner in each of the Vibrant Gujarat summits — events that turned Modi into India’s poster boy for economic growth and development.

US group appeal

A New York-based Sikh group has launched an online petition campaign urging US President Barack Obama to cancel an invitation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi because of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.

The group had earlier campaigned against Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

“Instead of hosting Modi at White House, President Obama should condemn Modi and ban the BJP…,” says the White House online petition launched by the Sikh for Justice group on Monday.

Obama has invited Modi to the US for a meeting with him at the White House on September 30.

The group had campaigned against Sonia and Singh in connection with the 1984 riots following the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

The online petition, which requires at least 100,000 signatures by August 20 to gain any attention of the White House, has on the first day got less than two dozen petitions.