India has learned to flirt with the world—and suitors everywhere are dazzled

Suitors all around.
Suitors all around.
Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
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India never had it so good. Even in the old days of the cold war, nonalignment did not give India the kind of space that it has in the world today. The mightiest nations of the world are lined up to seek strategic partnership with India. Offers range from hard cash to technology, from trade in consumer goods to supply and co-production of sophisticated weapons. Old and seemingly intractable problems have given way to identification of mutuality, political, economic and cultural. Tantalizing offers are being made of membership of groupings, which appeared out of bounds for India till very recently.

The United States, China, Japan and Australia have unveiled offers, considered unthinkable even a year ago. Pentagon has overtaken Foggy Bottom with offers of co-production and co-development of weapons. China, which had so far built roads only on its side of the border with India to reassert its claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, is ready to make massive investments in Indian infrastructure. Japan’s constitutional bar on arms exports and its acute allergy for everything nuclear are receding to the background and specific agreements in these areas are on the anvil. Australia, which had confronted India on nuclear matters and the Indian Ocean, has unabashedly come calling with a nuclear deal to open uranium trade with India, acknowledging India’s impeccable record in non-proliferation.

The reasons for the change of heart towards India across the board are diverse and even contradictory. The emergence of a single party government with a decisive leader is one reason attributed to the change. But most countries had seen the same leader as a Hindu nationalist with a dark past. Everyone knows that his party won only less than 40% of the votes. In these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine that the advent of Narendra Modi has caused the change. His lack of experience in foreign policy could even have been a disincentive.

Friendship premium

Another reason being cited is the growing strength of India. The stabilization of the rupee and the faster pace of liberalization may have attracted attention, but even when India was registering a two-digit growth, it did not enjoy the kind of confidence and concessions it now gets. The promise of growth, further liberalization, an investment friendly environment, (“red carpet, not red tape”) less government and more governance and reduction of corruption may well be the factors that have attracted the world towards India. The sustainability of the change will depend on whether the promises can be kept.

More than anything else, it is the evolving international situation and India’s unique geography and history, which have led to the new dazzle of India. With the US, the nuclear deal was transactional with clear expectations on both sides. President Barack Obama came to India in 2010 to reap the harvest of the deal in terms of nuclear and arms contracts at a time when creation of jobs was a life and death issue for his second term. His disillusionment caused by the nuclear liability law and the Indian rejection of F-18 fighter aircraft soured ties. The arrest of an Indian diplomat and retaliation by India marked a new low. None of these is a hindrance today and the US is gearing up for a visit by Narendra Modi, the success of which is a foregone conclusion. The geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific have expanded India’s magnetic field. Even if nuclear trade does not take place, the US will find compensation in arms trade with India. India’s friendliness itself is at a premium in the US today.

In 2005, faced by the new warmth in India-US relations, China was ready to move ever so slowly to befriend India, but its momentum was lost as India plunged into major scams and withdrew into its own shell. Today, China is signaling readiness to make significant investment and to forge a partnership, regardless of the complex border issue and other irritants. India is equally anxious to enhance Chinese investment and trade, as long as the border remains tranquil and China scales down its encirclement of India. The visit of President Xi Jinping is expected to be a game changer. As a gesture to India, he has postponed a visit to Pakistan, which was planned to take place before his arrival in India.

Asian darling

Modi and Abe share great personal rapport.
Modi and Abe share great personal rapport.
Image: Reuters/Kyodo

Unprecedented bonhomie marked the Modi-Abe summit in Japan. India will receive public and private funding to the tune of $35 billion in 5 years, a special strategic partnership was forged, which includes defense exchanges, clean energy, cultural linkages and bullet trains. The crucial nuclear agreement could not be signed and transfer of aircraft did not materialize, but the will was there to accomplish these in a short span of time. Modi’s critical reference to expansionist tendencies in the region gladdened the Japanese, though it was clarified later that he did not mean China. China, which had severely criticized India-Japan links on the occasion of another Indian visit, merely hinted at Japanese perfidy. Moreover, China has already indicated that the Chinese development package to India would be bigger than that of Japan.

In ancient times, eligible young women in India could publicly choose a husband from many suitors, who lined up with their wealth on display. India appears to be in the same happy situation, except that choosing just one among the contenders could be catastrophic. The challenge before India is to keep everyone hopeful and to derive benefits from each.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, though a novice in international diplomacy, has proved his ability to juggle around with several options with the agility of an Indian magician. His style is not to postpone decisions, but to take them at the right time and correct mistakes equally decisively. He postponed talks with Pakistan the moment the latter appeared to take liberties, he voted with Palestine when he realized that his bid to balance Israel and Palestine did not play well in India and he responded positively to the US overtures even after refusing to join the global agreement on WTO. He has proved his mettle in diplomacy in his first hundred days in office. His stress on continuity with innovation, decisiveness and sensitivity keeps India dazzling in the eyes of the world, at least for the present.