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GLIMPSES OF INDEPENDENCE

Narendra Modi’s elevation as India’s Prime Minister this May had drawn a rare, unspoken consensus between sections of American and Russian diplomats — marked by optimism on one side and concern on the other.

“We’re sure the Americans will try to pull the new Prime Minister closer to them, and we’re worried that may happen,” a Russian diplomat had said a day after Modi’s victory, just before US President Barack Obama phoned Modi to congratulate him.

In briefings and reports to the US Congress through June and July, senior Obama administration officials indicated they, too, expected ties with India to significantly improve under Modi.

But less than three months after Modi took over as Prime Minister, the first glimpses of his foreign policy doctrine suggest both the US — India’s largest trading partner — and Russia — its oldest major ally — may need to revise their expectations, diplomats and analysts said.

Modi has indicated he will seek stronger ties with the US, which he will visit from September 26-30, but not as the cost of India’s friendship with Russia and its President Vladimir Putin who he will host in December.

He will work for a nuclear deal with Japan, crucial for India to access most western reactors, and will visit Tokyo also in September but will not risk losing China’s goodwill and investments — and will welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to India that same month.

“He will not gang up with anyone against anyone else — he’s made that clear,” former Indian ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan and strategic analyst Melkulangara Bhadrakumar said. “He knows he needs all his options available to pull the economy back up. We could be headed for a truly independent foreign policy for the first time since at least Indira Gandhi.”

Although independence in its foreign policy has been a cornerstone of India’s strategic approach to the world since independence, the country has rarely been truly equidistant between the world's major powers. It was closer to the Soviet Union through much of the Cold War and since the economic reforms of 1991 has edged closer to the US with every successive government in India.

But a combination of Modi’s political commitments, his personal experiences with key foreign nations and hard economics appear to be underpinning an interpretation of strategic “independence” in the government that has left even some senior Indian officials surprised.

Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, too, walked a strategic tightrope between China and Japan on their disputes and between Russia and the US on their tensions.

But Singh, officials and diplomats from multiple countries have acknowledged in private conversations, was deeply concerned about India’s — and his government’s — image in the global economic order.

“He belonged there, was respected by his peers even before he became Prime Minister, and relished that,” a diplomat who travelled on multiple occasions with Singh said. “Occasions when domestic politics derailed his plans appeared to upset him.”

Not so yet for Modi.

The decision by the Modi government to block a World Trade Organisation trade facilitation agreement till India’s concerns on food security are met threatens to potentially isolate the new government from well-wishers in the developed world.

But at a BJP national council meet here this week, Modi turned that threat into a political opportunity, portraying himself as a warrior for India’s poor against developed nations.

“What should we do?” the PM asked aloud. “Take the bread off the plate of the poor to earn kudos from editorials in international papers?”

Unlike Singh, Modi is not new to criticism from the developed world — a key factor that appears to be driving the Prime Minister’s refusal to worry about perceptions in the West, analysts and officials said.

“Under the previous government, the idea was always to try and obtain India’s goals - including food security — without, as far as possible, appearing contrary to global rules,” a commerce ministry official who handles foreign trade said. “That’s changed.”

At a time relations between the US and Russia are more tense than they have been since the end of the Cold War, Modi has not just refused to consider accepting sanctions against Putin's government — the Singh administration rejected the sanctions too — but actually called Moscow India’s best friend.

It’s a position that led US Congressmen to grill assistant secretary of state Nisha Desai Biswal at a hearing last month on the “reliability” of India as a strategic partner.

“Modi has experienced for himself what it’s like to be vilified internationally, so he isn’t likely to let that influence his approach towards Putin,” Bhadrakumar said.

Modi was refused a visa by the US for nine years because of allegations of complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots, and was a pariah for the West during that period. He travelled to China and Russia thrice each in those years, and to Japan once.

The promise of economic revival that underpinned Modi’s election campaign also appears to be a key element in the Prime Minister’s foreign policy strategy, officials said.

Modi’s focus on the immediate neighbourhood — he invited all South Asian leaders to his inauguration and visited Bhutan and Nepal for his first bilateral trips — is rooted at least in part in this promise, the commerce ministry official suggested.

“There’s a belief that good, stable relations in the neighbourhood could open up the region for trade and economic opportunities otherwise not possible,” the official said. “Remember, it’s the one part of the world where we have a natural advantage over other major nations but have not yet capitalised in terms of trade.”

But maintaining the kind of “independence” Modi has indicated he wants to foster, while seeking stronger ties with competing nations like China and Japan, or the US and Russia, will not be easy at a time differences are sharpening.

“It may leave Prime Minister Modi a bit of a loner on the world stage,” Bhadrakumar said. “But then, from what we’ve seen of him in public life, he appears comfortable with that.”