Friends new or old, Modi short of time

Latin America to Africa, Pacific nations to NAM - all kept waiting

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 16.05.16
Sushma Swaraj

New Delhi, May 15: When President Pranab Mukherjee flew to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand in early May, the foreign office highlighted the rarity of the visits that made them landmark occasions.

But the trips were equally an effort by the Narendra Modi government to play catch-up with its own stated priorities, set in its first year at a pace many veterans cautioned was double-edged.

After Modi held a summit with counterparts from Papua New Guinea and 13 other Pacific Island countries in each of his first two years as Prime Minister, India has quietly reduced the frequency of meetings to once every two years.

When New Zealand Prime Minister John Key wanted to visit India in February, the Prime Minister's Office said Modi did not have time to host him. Key was politely told to drop his plans.

The Pacific region isn't alone, four senior officials familiar with the challenge have confirmed.

Two years after Modi began accumulating record flying miles as Prime Minister, India is struggling to find time either for the new relationships he has emphasised, as with the Pacific countries, or for the old bonds with Africa and Latin America that he has promised to rejuvenate.

Modi's stamina for travel hasn't dimmed, and the foreign office is trying its best to juggle dates. But a legacy constraint that has long held Indian diplomacy back has expanded under the current government, hobbling its efforts to keep up the momentum Modi tried to set.

Indian Prime Ministers have traditionally held foreign policy so close to themselves that any major breakthrough needs them to meet their foreign counterparts. Presidents and Vice-Presidents largely have ceremonial diplomatic roles.

The foreign ministers and their deputies are principally tasked with preparing for Prime Ministers' visits and maintaining existing levels of relations.

But under Modi, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj is widely perceived as wielding even lower influence on foreign policy than many of her predecessors.

Also, at a time India's diplomatic engagements are constantly increasing, the Modi government has reduced the number of junior foreign ministers from two under the UPA to one.

"We need to fundamentally change that approach and designate many more people with the authority to push relationships," former diplomat Kishan Rana, an advocate for foreign office reforms, told The Telegraph.

"If we don't, we will continue to struggle."

Modi's second foreign visit as Prime Minister was to Brazil, for the July 2014 Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (Brics) summit where he also met leaders from every South American country, invited by the host.

"I assure you that India will work more closely with South America than ever before," Modi told those leaders. "I look forward to returning to this great continent."

Modi has visited 32 countries since then but has not had time to visit South America again. In fact, he has put off a visit.

Venezuela was to hold the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement - of which India was a founder - last summer. But Indian and Venezuelan officials confirmed that the Modi government pressed for a postponement arguing the Prime Minister would be unable to attend.

The summit was postponed to July 2016, but Modi has not yet confirmed his attendance.

The Modi government has also not had time to host leaders from the region. No head of state or government from Latin America - Mexico, Central America and South America barring the few English colonies and Suriname - has visited India over the past two years.

Africa is no different. In October 2015, Modi hosted leaders from all 54 African countries for the largest multilateral summit India has held in more than three decades.

"We are conscious of the shadow that falls between an idea and action, between intention and implementation," Modi told them.

"However, Africa will remain at the centre of our attention. And I look forward to visiting all the regions of Africa in the years ahead."

But two years into his tenure, mainland Africa remains the one large landmass - apart from Greenland and Antarctica - that Modi has not visited.

Vice-President Hamid Ansari's visits to Senegal and Morocco, earlier scheduled for April, have had to be postponed because of the government's decision to call Parliament to session. Ansari is Chair of the Rajya Sabha.

Sushma's health has exacerbated the challenge. The foreign office wanted her to visit Australia and Fiji in February but she indicated unease at multiple stopovers and long flights.

The foreign minister was to visit Myanmar on May 1. She would have been the senior-most representative from the Modi government to do so since the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy came to power recently. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi had already beaten her to Myanmar, visiting in early April.

But Sushma was down with pneumonia, and was discharged from hospital only today. So she could not travel on May 1.

India has also postponed a planned May 19 Sushma visit to Japan because of her health. "No, the visit is not happening this month," foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said on Thursday.

New Delhi needs to look no further than its eastern neighbours, officials said, for an alternative approach.

Japan empowers special envoys - former Prime Ministers and retired diplomats - to develop bilateral relations with key countries.

Although the final authority in China rests with the President, it too is increasingly using all members of its powerful politburo standing committee as envoys representing Beijing overseas.

India tried emulating the Japanese model, when Modi's predecessor Manmohan Singh appointed former minister Ashwani Kumar as his special envoy for relations with Tokyo in 2013. But the attempt was soon forgotten.

India's governments have in recent years assigned specific geographies to junior foreign ministers to at least make token visits when the Prime Minister, President, Vice-President or foreign minister can't.

The UPA had two junior foreign ministers - one specifically for the Gulf countries and the other mainly for countries in Africa and Latin America. But Modi has appointed just a single minister, V.K. Singh, as Sushma's deputy.