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It's show business

From hosting Xi Jinping on a swing at the Sabarmati riverfront to organising a rally with Donald Trump in Ahmedabad, event management has been the hallmark of Modi’s diplomacy

Sushant Singh Published 30.05.23, 05:35 AM

Sourced by the Telegraph

Earlier this month, before the prime minister, Narendra Modi, left for Japan to attend the three outreach sessions of the G7 summit at Hiroshima, officials said that India would use this opportunity to bring issues of the Global South to the fore. But the G7 Leaders’ Communiqué did not even mention the Global South, let alone expound on dealing with the issues faced by it. Asked about the omission, the foreign secretary, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, claimed that “Global South, I would urge you not to dismiss it as a terminology. It is a sentiment.”

Kwatra’s line seems to be inspired by Bollywood. Salman Khan had famously used a similar dialogue in the climax of his film, Kick: “Main dil mein aata hoon, samajh mein nahi (I enter hearts but I don't make much sense).” A filmstar may get away with uttering inanities, but India’s foreign policy has to make sense, especially when the prime minister is dealing with a grouping as important as the G7.


Modi was there at the G7 summit because India was invited in its role as the G20 chair, along with Comoros (chair of African Union), Cook Islands (chair of Pacific Islands Forum), and Indonesia (Asean chair). But the star of the show was the guest country, Ukraine. Its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, flew down from an Arab League meeting in Riyadh to Hiroshima and grabbed the spotlight. Modi had a highly-publicised bilateral meeting with Zelensky, but there were no tangible outcomes for India from the G7 summit.

Hiroshima, however, marked a major shift in the approach of the industrialised Western countries away from G20 to G7. In 2011, when France was chairing both the groupings, it was meant to end the G7 as the world had moved, after the global financial crisis, towards the G20 as the “premier forum for international economic cooperation”. The culling never happened, and Russia was instead removed from the erstwhile G8 after it captured Crimea in 2014.

Nine years later, the G20 is divided and dysfunctional — amply demonstrated at the meetings of foreign ministers in Delhi and finance ministers in Bengaluru under India’s presidency — and the Joe Biden administration has chosen to present a united face of industrialised, democratic countries through the G7. G7’s return to relevance is happening at the expense of G20. Aided in good measure by Russia and China, the G7 is now dooming the G20 into insignificance. This directly impacts Modi’s political calculations; he has bet a lot on India’s rotational presidency of the G20 — it was postponed at Delhi’s request by a year to feed into the campaign for the 2024 general elections.

The relentless diversion of the energies of the Indian State on events of the G20 presidency epitomises the conduct of Modi’s foreign policy over the past nine years. From hosting China’s president, Xi Jinping, and his wife on a swing at the Sabarmati riverfront to organising a rally with President Donald Trump at the now Narendra Modi stadium in Ahmedabad, event management has been the hallmark of Modi’s diplomacy. The razzmatazz of the event is matched by an obsessive focus on himself. Add to it the hysterical hype, choreographed photo opportunities, incessant public relations onslaught, and a breathless domestic media acting as the propaganda mouthpiece, the G20 summit at Delhi in September is to be the climax of all that has come to define Modi’s foreign policy.

Even as the G20 risks paling into irrelevance, Modi is likely to double down on the event management of the summit. The lesser the chance of any substantive diplomatic outcome, the greater will be the focus on trivial stuff such as the choice of traditional Indian dresses for guests, selection of gifts for them, and dinner menus in multiple languages.

In Modi’s ‘New India’, substantial outcomes be damned, a shiny event that burnishes his persona domestically is an outcome by itself. This was evident from his trip to Papua New Guinea and Australia following the G7 summit. There was nothing concrete that emerged, except some photographs, a few video clips, and the tacky spectacle of a speech at a privately organised event in Sydney. By now, it is well known in diplomatic circles that Modi is flattered to be seen in the close company of powerful foreign leaders. Most foreign leaders thus do not hesitate to shower praise on him as long as their country’s interests are served. This was on display in Sydney and will be seen again in Washington DC during Modi’s State visit next month and at the Bastille Day parade in Paris in July.

Modi’s Australia visit was awkward for a leader with pretensions of being a vishwaguru. The president of the United States of America, Joe Biden, was to join Modi in Papua New Guinea and Australia, but he pulled out at the last minute. The Japanese prime minister joined Biden in cancelling his Australia trip where the Quad summit was to be held. A short, 47-minute Quad meeting was squeezed in before the G7 dinner at Hiroshima, barely enough time for pleasantries, let alone indulge in any serious discussion about the group’s agenda. With the Quad meeting done, Modi would have been better off in returning early to India and focusing on the border state of Manipur that remains tense and violent. It was the prime minister’s raj dharma to go to a place where more than 75 lives have been lost, another 45,000 are in relief camps, nearly 2,000 houses burnt, more than 200 churches reportedly damaged, and more than 2,400 weapons snatched from the security forces. How can a private event in Sydney take priority over lives and livelihoods of Indians?

In July, India will also host the SCO summit, which the Russian and Chinese presidents are scheduled to attend. Modi would also be seen with the two leaders at the BRICS summit in South Africa. In the past year or so, many hailed India’s great success in allowing its private oil firms to profit from cheap Russian crude without a rap on the knuckles from the US. But the window for that great balancing act seems to be closing. The European Union has made it clear that it is not keen on importing refined products of Russian crude from India. Moscow is angry because about $2 billion in payments from India to Russia is stuck due to fear of US sanctions and it has collected vast payments for defence deals in rupees which it cannot use. Russia has decided to stop supplying credit for about $10 billion worth of spare parts for Indian armed forces along with the two S-400 missile defence system batteries. It has now threatened the Modi government of upending critical defence, energy and transportation deals unless Delhi helps “block moves” by mostly Western countries to blacklist Russia at the Financial Action Task Force.

Modi’s personalised diplomacy with his fellow strongman Putin is on test here. It is a test Modi has failed after 18 meetings with Xi Jinping. The strategic challenge posed by China has become bigger after three years of the border crisis, even as Indian trade dependency on its northern neighbour increases by the day. Similar was the case with the Egyptian leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was invited by Modi as a chief guest for the Republic Day parade this year. Egypt chose to boycott the G20 officials meeting at Srinagar. So did Saudi Arabia; this when the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is portrayed as being very close to Modi.

Bear hugs with foreign leaders or extravagant meals for them in Delhi may make for great pictures but do little to advance India’s interests. Personal chemistry with leaders is interesting to have but is neither essential nor critical to diplomacy. India’s foreign policy cannot be reduced to event management. A newly independent India, far weaker than it is now, was a force to reckon with globally because it could summon the power of ideas. Today, we seem to have neither the hard power to get Qatar to release eight retired naval officers kept in solitary confinement for nine months nor the soft power to secure the interests of Global South at the G7 summit. That, in effect, is the summary of Modi’s diplomacy after nine years in power.

Sushant Singh is Senior Fellow with Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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