Given his provincial mindset with some tenuous grasp of national issues, it is understandable that Narendra Modi’s supporters carefully cast him as a predominantly domestic prime minister-to-be.
However, he would discover on Day 1 and Minute 1 as prime minister, if he indeed becomes one, that India is as much defined by what is inside its borders as it is by what is outside, sometime way outside. I am curious to know what level of understanding, reading, comprehension and policy formulation he brings to the table on important foreign policy issues. The obvious ones are obvious such as whether India’s relations with America under him will be defined and hamstrung by his own sense of personal bitterness at having been denied a U.S. visa since 2005.
While leaders learn to separate their personal pique from national interests, it would be foolish to think that the visa denial would not inform his view of America. America needs to be worried about that because while in the warm glow of victory he might choose to be grand, conciliatory and even forgiving, it would be during testing times that the bile of rejection will rapidly rise up his esophagus.
What is his view of China, a country he visited with some gusto? Does China’s model of letting economic development ride roughshod over social indices continue to fascinate Modi? How does he propose to deal with China’s overarching global ambitions which get defined ever so subtly unlike the United States’ perpetual swinging dick policy?
How does he look at Russia and Vladimir Putin who may not have a 56-inch chest but is uninhibited to bare it anyway? Does he understand Putin’s worldview where Russia returns to its glory days as the only credible rival to America?
These three are, of course, the main tension points for any prime minister of India but then there is a whole bunch of others. I have not mentioned Pakistan because it is so obvious that it needs no mentioning. Unlike the only prime minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the illustrious Atal Behari Vajpayee, who in 1999 visited the Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore, the most potent symbol of post-partition Pakistan, he might have a radically different view of the neighbor. Vajpayee’s visit to the monument, although controversial at the time, was seen as a significant acknowledgment by a pro-Hindu leader of Pakistan’s existence as a separate nation-state. It was here in 1940 that the Indian Muslim League formalized the resolution for the creation of a separate state for Muslims.
During his visit to the monument, Vajpayee was reported to have written in the visitors’ book this: “A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt. India sincerely wishes Pakistan well.” When Vajpayee was cautioned by some against visiting the monument because that would be seen as the Hindu nationalists approving Pakistan’s existence, he was said to have retorted, “As if Pakistan exists because of my seal of approval."
One can never be certain but it seems more than unlikely that Modi will have a similar approach toward Pakistan.
What about a post-US withdrawal Afghanistan and India? How does Modi propose to position to India in the context of Afghanistan?
I ask these questions simply because there are no signs that Modi has any policy formulations in mind or whether there is a team of foreign policy experts which has given him a thorough briefing. Unlike Gujarat, a significant part of which has pretty much been a captive audience for Modi for over a decade now, the world is crisscrossed by highly complex geopolitical and geostrategic currents. These challenges require a little more than just thumping nationalistic chest.
I am pretty sure that by now Washington would have spent months scouring over every detail about Narendra Modi the man, his peculiarities, his little known propensities, his quirks and so on to be able to understand how to deal with his administration. Scenarios would have been drawn and redrawn about what he might or might not do in a given situation. Someone would have studied whether the visa denial for close to a decade would obstruct a smooth interface between Washington and Delhi under him.
Potential ambassadorial replacements for New Delhi, after the departure of Nancy Powell, would be discussed threadbare. The benefits of appointing someone like Rajiv Shah, head of the United States Agency for International Development, would also be gone through carefully. That Shah is a Gujarati like Modi may only be a marginal factor but certainly something that might be weighed for its impact. Of course, it will be no more than a transient novelty because Modi is not the type to let an epic grudge dissolve merely because a fellow Gujarati requests him to.
It is astonishing that Modi has gotten away without discussing any of these issues in front of the national electorate, notwithstanding that foreign policy plays almost no role in India’s elections. Except for Pakistan, which has over the decades become some weird form of domestic policy, almost nothing figures in the pre-election discourse from the foreign policy side.
I am interested simply because I want to see how Narendra Modi deals with a clusterfuck of challenges on this front. I am fairly certain that barrel-chestedness can only this far. Unlike Putin, Modi is unlikely to mount a horse or frolic with dolphins without his shirt on.