Raisina to Davos and back: Narendra Modi, the marathon man

Raisina to Davos and back: Narendra Modi, the marathon man

In an age, when Lit Fests mark the highpoint of intellectual life, an intense and serious three-day conference on geo-politics, defence, counter-terrorism and international relations is akin to binge-watching old Hollywood classics. Raisina Dialogue is undoubtedly more of the latter.

A joint venture of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation, Raisina Dialogue has come of age in a short span of three years to become an important event in the calendar of international policy conclaves with a stellar guest list. It is hardly surprising that the rising stature of Raisina Dialogue has coincided with India’s increasing presence on the global stage.

The theme of Raisina Dialogue 2018 was Managing Disruptive Transitions. As India’s outgoing Foreign Secretary, S Jaishankar, neatly summed up in the concluding session: at a geo-political level the single largest contributor to the disruption has been the rise of China. The second factor, he thought, was the  “choices, posture and responses” of the US to situations such as Iraq that predate the Trump Administration. Of course, there was near unanimity about terrorism being the biggest challenge. But no less important was the emergence of non-market economics in a hyper-connected world.

Interestingly, apart from being a giant disruptor on its own, China cut across the remaining three elements of disruption in equal measure. The discomfort was not so much in accepting China at the global high table but the fact that it did not always follow established table manners and preferred to set its own rules. No wonder the world seems to be in the grip of severe Sinophobia and China is obviously enjoying the attention it is receiving.

Diplomacy is all about timing and calibration. Over the last three years, the Modi Government has been slowly coming out of the Nehruvian template of foreign policy to claim India’s rightful place in the emerging world order. This has been characterised by visible self-confidence to do what it perceives right for India without being apologetic about it. Nowhere was this in greater display than in Narendra Modi’s bold public embrace of Israel. To that extent, Raisina Dialogue 2018 was both S Jaishankar’s farewell bash and India’s coming out party for the new Indo-Pacific 'Quad' comprising theUS, Japan, India and Australia.

From a diplomatic standpoint, January has been a packed month for the Modi Government. Earlier last week Modi went to the World Economic Forum annual conference in Davos, Switzerland, to address the opening plenary. Unquestionably a huge honour and extremely significant event considering an Indian Prime Minister was at Davos after a gap of 20 years. Clearly, there were great expectations. The Indian contingent of business honchos and the media were present in full strength.

Modi struck the right notes even if it was on a somewhat expansive mode as is his signature style. He touched upon the retreat of globalisation and the consequent rise of protectionism, climate change, terrorism and big data as the currency of the future. Coming to India, PM made a strong pitch on the ease of doing business, removal of red tape and entry barriers.

He highlighted both democracy and demographics while subtly addressing any unspoken concern about inclusiveness with his “Sabke saath, Sabka vikas” slogan. He reminded the international delegates about the 30 million strong Indian diaspora across the world who are a force to reckon with.

Though everyone initially raved about it, a few on an afterthought, particularly after Donald Trump’s address, felt Modi’s speech was somewhat underwhelming. This to my mind is not a fair judgement.

Modi could not have been more aggressive on his maiden outing. He had to carefully balance between being a statesman and a salesman. He could not afford hard talk like the American President, who the world may dislike but cannot ignore. Perceptions do not change overnight. Anything more direct from Modi, on his first outing, would have definitely lacked credibility. While businessmen across the world seek unequivocal promises, they are sharp enough not to miss the subtle signals.

If Davos was soft sell, Modi’s reception of the ASEAN leaders on his return home was anything but shy. Modi had made a grand opening statement by calling all the SAARC heads of Government to his Prime Ministerial inaugural and having the ASEAN chiefs for the Republic Day celebration on Rajpath was only a logical progression. It is a declaration of intent to the international community about the role that India wishes to play in the region.

Many may disparage it as pretentious. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have already made light of Modi’s foreign policy calling it “Hugplomacy”. China has scoffed at it as India’s illusion of grandeur. But, diplomacy is also about signalling. So, if they have commented they certainly have also taken note of the developments.

Certainly, the Modi Government is not naïve to fancy India as an answer to China. But, as S Jaishankar pointed out, India may not be the only solution but it can certainly be a part of a solution. Modi knows this better than any of his predecessors and, probably, any other leader on the domestic horizon. The international community recognises Modi’s flair for geopolitical affairs and, therefore, is likely to back him. From that stems Modi’s own confidence.

He is, therefore, clearly winding up his first innings and starting his preparations for a second one to begin soon with the self-assurance of a marathon man.

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