Narendra Modi’s admirable personal diplomacy bears fruits

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi shared the stage with US President Donald Trump at the ‘Howdy Modi!’ extravaganza in Houston before a crowd of 50,000 lustily-cheering ethnic Indians on Sunday last, he was playing his style of diplomacy to perfection. He showered encomiums on Trump and received them as no other Indian leader has done in the past with an American president.

Ethnic Indians in the US have been traditionally closer to the Democrats than to the Republicans but using Modi’s charisma Trump is looking at 2020 when he fights for a second term in office.

In fact, Modi has converted building personal rapport with world leaders to a fine art. Be it Russian president Vladimir Putin, or Chinese head of state Xi Jinping or Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe or a whole galaxy of other world leaders, Modi knows only too well how to rub shoulders with them as no one has done in the past.

Until a few months ago the then External Affairs Minister late Sushma Swaraj played a perfect role in supplementing his efforts. Now it is her successor S Jaishankar who Modi is building up as a foil to him, doing the initial spadework before Modi begins to use his oratory and charms. Having served as foreign secretary and then as ambassador to China and the US, Jaishankar is a past master at diplomacy.

The Chinese are foxed by Modi's aggressive courting of world powers. The manner in which he has kept the Russians in good humour while pandering to the US, the felicity with which he has kept a seemingly friendly dialogue going with the Chinese despite some obvious straws in the wind has taught the world powers to not just tolerate but to admire him for what he is.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama’s signing of a “joint strategic vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean region with India rattled the Chinese in sofaras it detailed plans for intelligence-sharing, maritime surveillance, and the "rule of law on the seas" but the Chinese accepted these grudgingly. Coupled with the uneasiness at the Indo-US nuclear and defence deals, they hit the Chinese below the belt. When Trump came to power and set about raising trade tariffs on Chinese imports there was little that Beijing could do. The hostility towards India by the Chinese was tempered by the US having become enemy number one.

Even as China smarted under the Indo-US civil nuclear deal and the defence deals between the two countries, Sushma Swaraj was closeted in discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who broke protocol by receiving an official at the ministerial level, and not a head of state. At the end of the discussions, Xi surprised many by saying: "I have full confidence in the future of China-India relations, and I believe that real progress will be achieved in growing this bilateral relationship in this new year."

While Modi was working on bringing India closer to the US in the wake of the Indo-US nuclear deal, Sushma Swaraj was setting the stage for a potential breakthrough in resolving the long-standing dispute between China and India over its shared border-a conflict that led to a brief war in 1962. These have been well-calibrated policies with an eye on positive results.

In Houston last week Modi was quick to realise the benefits he could draw from taking advantage of Trump’s desire to cultivate the ethnic Indians before the 2020 polls in the US. He surmised that Trump with his bloated ego needed to be pampered. So when they shared the stage the president beamed with pleasure as the prime minister delivered a twist on his own election slogan: “Abki baar Trump sarkar” or “This time, a Trump government.”

In the 2016 presidential elections in the US, the Republicans accounted for a mere 14 per cent of the total vote, making it an overwhelming vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton against Trump. The US President is hoping to win Indian hearts by his gesture of goodwill towards Modi and much of the rhetoric at the Houston rally was put-on.

It suited Modi to play the game of closeness. That India’s abrogating of Article 370 to remove the special status of Jammu and Kashmir has evoked no negative response from the American presidency is in itself a major gain for the Modi dispensation.

There was a time too in recent times when Russia seemed to be drifting away from India as this country seemed to be leaning towards the US to counter China. The manner in which Modi and India brought the Russians back to supporting them is interesting.

Despite opposition from the US to India’s impending purchase of S-400 fighter jets, India did well to go ahead with the purchase which was cause enough for the Russians to appreciate Indian defiance of US pressure. A visit to Russia by Modi brought Indo-Russian relations back centrestage and it was clever diplomacy that ironed out the US resentment.

India’s relations with Japan largely through good personal equation between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Modi, the special relationship that India and France have forged and the Indo-Israeli bonhomie are largely the result of Modi’s personal diplomacy. The same can be said of Indo-UAE relations which have taken a positive turn in recent years despite traditional Pak-UAE bonhomie for many years.

All in all, there is much to gloat about in regard to India’s handling of the major powers in the world. While Modi has had some undoubted failings on the domestic front, the deft handling of world powers has been a big plus for the Modi dispensation.

The writer is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.

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