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Bundgulla diplomacy – by Dr Ashok V Desai

, May 29, 2015, 0 Comments

Bundgulla diplomacy Ashok v desai MarketExpress-inWho is India’s foreign minister? It happens to be Sushma Swaraj. Who is foreign secretary? That is easier: Subrahmaniam is too common a name; Jaishankar is easier to remember. And who is India’s foreign policy maker? That is the easiest: Narendra Modi. Not surprising, since he visited 17 countries in his first year.

Some of the visits were to attend routine meetings of groups of which India happens to be a member; thus, he went to Australia for a G20 meeting, to Brazil for a BRICS meeting, to Nepal for a SAARC meeting and to the US for a UN General Assembly meeting. He also went to Burma for a meeting of ASEAN, of which India is not a member. But the rest of the visits were what are called state visits, where he as Prime Minister is invited by the equivalent grandee of the host country.

Bundgulla is closed-neck – a term for the kind of coat that forms part of Indian males’ official dress

That is the definition, but it does not always work like that. Usually, our ambassador in the host country has a chat with the foreign secretary of the host country, during the course of which the idea of the Prime Minister’s visit crops up. Then there are indirect negotiations between the Prime Minister and his foreign equivalent, resulting in the visit. Many of the visits did not quite happen that way. For example, it is unlikely that Fiji invited the PM on his way back from Brisbane; in that visit, as in many others, the initiative is likely to have been taken by the Prime Minister’s office. In other words, the PM has made a special effort over the past year to visit many countries and to get to know their heads.

That is the definition, but it does not always work like that. Usually, our ambassador in the host country has a chat with the foreign secretary of the host country, during the course of which the idea of the Prime Minister’s visit crops up. Then there are indirect negotiations between the Prime Minister and his foreign equivalent, resulting in the visit. Many of the visits did not quite happen that way. For example, it is unlikely that Fiji invited the PM on his way back from Brisbane; in that visit, as in many others, the initiative is likely to have been taken by the Prime Minister’s office. In other words, the PM has made a special effort over the past year to visit many countries and to get to know their heads.

After two decades of stellar growth, India has arrived; so it is no surprise if its Prime Minister gets invited to jamborees, also known as summits. It is the visits to individual countries that reveal interesting patterns. An obvious one is the neighbourhood: apart from Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, which are a part of our cultural community, Modi has also visited Mauritius and Seychelles.

Mauritius has two islands north of its main island, called Agalega islands. They are cut off from the main island, being some 700 miles away. India has offered to build an airstrip on the north Agalega. Seychelles has been more or less a part of the Indian navy’s patrol area. It sent a gunboat in 1986 into Seychelles waters to deter some people who were plotting a coup there. Last year, it passed on one of its gunboats, INS Tarasa, to Seychelles; its gunboats continue to stop by in Seychelles for water and other drinks. For many years, India has watched by as the interest of the US and the UK in the Indian Ocean waned and the interest of China waxed. After the coming of Modi, it has at least moved closer to Mauritius and Seychelles and helped them strengthen their maritime security.

No country in the world can avoid superpowers. Till 1990, there were only two: the US, which was Pakistan’s patron, and the Soviet Union, which was India’s ally. Then the US, with its much larger and richer economy, won in the cold war; the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990 and became Russia. India continued to be its informal ally, and the heads of both the countries continued to visit each other in a clockwork fashion. The 15th annual meeting was held in Delhi last December.  It resulted in nothing concrete beyond a possible second nuclear power station after Kudankudam. It set objectives of $30 billion in trade and another $30 billion in mutual foreign investment by 2025 – spectacularly modest in view of India’s current total trade of $750 billion.

Modi invited Obama for Republic Day, and gamboled with him. Their talks did not lead to any targets; amongst other things, they decided to continue talking about the civil nuclear agreement, which Manmohan Singh started pursuing many years ago. What was new, however, was the promise of US defence technology. If it is supplied, it will be a radical departure from India’s decades-old stance.

What was even more radical was Modi’s courtship of China. Sino-Indian relations have been lukewarm to cold. Although they kept their border dispute in cold storage for over half a century, they have never made any progress on it; and other issues have accumulated over time. What Modi has done is to cultivate relations with Chinese rulers; this is a clever initiative, for if ever there is a breakthrough on the substantial issues, it will come out of a political deal at the top.

To take a general view of his energetic activities, Modi has introduced fluidity into long-frozen positions of Indian foreign policy, and built up new personal relationships which he can use to make deals in the future.  No agreements have been reached yet; and some of the initiatives will probably fail – for instance, it is doubtful whether Obama can deliver much before his presidency ends next year. But success in international relations requires risk-taking and persuasion, and Modi has ventured out on both counts. It is an exciting change from the solemn stasis of the decade preceding him.

–This article appeared first in The Economic Times