What’s wrong and what’s right with Modi’s foreign visits

Domestic politics cannot overshadow diplomacy.

 |  5-minute read |   14-11-2015
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Despite the poll debacle in Bihar Assembly Elections wherein the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could only manage 53 seats, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked on a three-day diplomatic trip to the United Kingdom. This is indeed a sign of statesmanship as rashtraneeti is above raajneeti. National interest is paramount and it should never succumb to partisan politics.

Modi has been repeatedly trolled on the assumption that he spends most of his days abroad touring exotic places. Some have even suggested the need for the ghar wapsi or homecoming of the Prime Minister. Such criticism is misguided and exaggerated since PM Modi does spend bulk of his time on Indian soil. As US secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton visited as many as 112 countries between the years 2008-2012. Modi is nowhere close to having visited 112 countries but if he is required to visit even 200 countries for the sake of improving bilateral relations between nations which would eventually boost economic ties, enhance educational cooperation and technical assistance then he should go ahead and do so. 

However, Modi should ensure that he is accessible to the common man in India. If he is travelling aboard frequently then he should also spend time visiting afflicted farmers in Vidarbha region and meeting people living in insurgency hit areas of Jammu & Kashmir and the northeast. Both are equally important but unfortunately Modi has given primacy to the former allowing leaders like Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi to question his commitment towards the people of India. Instead of lending his energy to over-promoting campaigns like Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, International Yoga Day and Digital India, Modi should listen to the problems of sanitation workers, patients who don’t have access to affordable healthcare and millions of Indians who are not only deprived of internet but also education, employment and electricity.  

The need for domestic stability is essential for the sake of having a sustainable foreign policy but domestic politics cannot overshadow foreign policy. It was a shameful sight when Modi went to campaign for Bihar elections instead of attending to African leaders who had come to New Delhi for the India-Africa Forum Summit 2015 held in the last week of October. Atithi devo bhava (Guest is equivalent to God) is a much touted phrase in our country. It represents our all-embracing nature. Where did this feeling disappear when Modi chose campaigning in state elections above interacting with foreign dignitaries waiting in the national capital? 

Some of the previous foreign trips of Narendra Modi are worth praising. It was encouraging to see Modi visit countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Mongolia about whom not many Indians are aware. A country’s external policy cannot be cultivated solely keeping in mind powerful nations like USA, UK, China and Russia, it has to take within its ambit immediate neighbours like Nepal and Bhutan as also extended neighbours in East and West Asia be it United Arab Emirates or Japan. That’s the reason why Modi needs to be commended for having made an effort to reach out to these countries. 

But Modi’s foreign policy has been a failure as far as its engagement with Pakistan is concerned. The process of engagement which began with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to India during Modi’s swearing in ceremony has gone nowhere. Outstanding issues like prosecution of 26/11 terror accused and Kashmir dispute are far from being resolved. The Line of Control has also reported frequent skirmishes. Indo-Pak engagement is a necessity which cannot be overlooked. 

For 28 years no Indian Prime Minister visited Sri Lanka but Narendra Modi did away with the trend by paying a visit to the island nation. He did so despite the political volatility associated with the whole notion of Sri Lanka suppressing its Tamil minority. During his trip, Modi also visited the war torn region of Jaffna. This was indeed a strong indication of Indian foreign policy vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. It signified that India is willing to engage with Sri Lanka but it will not turn a blind eye to persecution of Tamils in the country and looks forward to their proper and wholesome rehabilitation in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war. Modi needs to do a “Sri Lanka” in “Pakistan”.

He needs to visit Pakistan to hint at India’s willingness to be its ally instead of an adversary. The visit will pave the way for engagement and provide Modi with an opportunity to unequivocally convey his reservations regarding Pakistan’s approach to terrorism. Modi must realize that without visiting Pakistan, he will be committing a foreign policy blunder. His goal should not be to project muscular nationalism by avoiding the “P” word but by embracing it which is crucial for continental peace. Pakistan is our immediate neighbour which shares a long and extended border with us. A Prime Minister who focuses more on far off nations instead of natural allies in the region is bound to create foes in the vicinity thereby crafting an unsuccessful foreign policy. 

It is indeed a sign of great pride when an Indian prime minister addresses a gathering of NRIs or Non Resident Indians abroad. But such functions should represent India rather than BJP. Why aren’t common Indians instead of BJP-allied Indians provided with a pass to such events? Shouldn’t such gala spectacles be organised by the external affairs ministry instead of Friends of BJP? The reality behind crowds gathering at venues like Madison Square Garden is quite different. The attempt is not to project a particular image of India abroad but to provide Modi with publicity. 

While on foreign tours Modi should mind his language and think twice before speaking because he is representing the entire country. He shouldn’t use the opportunity to attack opposition parties as he has done in the past. Modi should refrain from making misogynist remarks like “despite being a woman” Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is harsh on terrorism. Factual errors like the one wherein he referred to royal family of Bhutan as that of Nepal should also be avoided. Lastly, Modi shouldn’t attack secularists back home while gifting copies of the Gita to a head of state or talking about the promotion of Sanskrit. The media should also objectively report on Modi’s foreign visits instead of turning cheerleaders of the prime minister and blackening out on anti-Modi protests. 

 

Writer

Saif Ahmad Khan Saif Ahmad Khan @saifakhan

The writer is pursuing MA Convergent Journalism from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

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