Modi and Mahinda: the twain will meet tomorrow


by Rajan Philips

It was not Prime Minister Modi’s idea to invite his South Asian counterparts to grace his swearing in tomorrow in New Delhi. It was not even an idea that started in India’s External Affairs Ministry. Apparently it began as a public image idea in a think tank discussion involving retired Indian diplomats and government officials. They ran it by the new PM and after a brief chat on the phone Mr. Modi okayed the idea. It is a great idea for public optics, but its politics may not have been thought through. The two controversial invitees are Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. There is no one in India who is opposed to Mr. Sharif visiting Delhi for the swearing in ceremony, but there is opposition at home - from the Pakistani military establishment. The Taliban attack on the Indian Consulate in the Herat Province in Afghanistan, soon after Delhi sent out the invitations, is widely seen as a warning to Prime Minister Sharif against attending the ceremony in Delhi. Nonetheless, after grappling with his dilemma whether to go, or not to go, Mr. Sharif announced yesterday that he would be going to Delhi on Monday. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has already confirmed his trip to Delhi regardless of the Herat attack.

No such worries for President Rajapaksa, who has already accepted the invitation. He and his supporters are elated while the Sri Lankan Tamils at home and in the diaspora are perplexed. In Tamil Nadu, on the other hand, there is universal opposition to Mr. Rajapaksa being invited to the swearing ceremony, but they cannot do anything about it. Political cunning or magnanimity, Mr. Rajapaksa sent a fax (or fox) offer through his External Affairs Minister to the Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran to join the Presidential delegation to New Delhi. Mr. Wigneswaran has politely declined the offer and his "thanks, but no thanks" response has hit the news media in India.

The bigger snag to the swearing-in invitation was the Taliban attack on the Indian Consulate in the Province of Herat. The retired External Affairs folks who came up with the idea of inviting the South Asian leaders may not have factored in the Taliban spanner in their optical plans, but inadvertently they have created a foreign policy challenge to Prime Minister Modi even before his swearing in. President Karzai is closer to Delhi than to Islamabad and with the Americans beginning their pull out of Afghanistan, Indian targets may become more vulnerable to Taliban forces in Afghanistan. How will the new Modi administration respond? While Mr. Modi’s external focus will determinedly be driven by his domestic economic priorities, the situation in Afghanistan will force him to simultaneously deal with Pakistan, Kabul and Washington.

The mind and method of Narendra Modi

The Hindu in its editorial on Modi’s neighbourhood initiative has called it a "shock and awe tactic with three messages": First to Pakistan, the second to the region including China, and the third for domestic consumption. The first seems to have gone well so far with the Prime Minister Sharif accepting the invitation despite his difficulties with his army and the Taliban attack in Herat allegedly ordered by its sources in Pakistan. The second message is really a message of difference to neighbouring countries as well as China, that in Modi they will find a no-nonsense and hands-on Prime Minister who will be more pro-active in his dealings with other countries in contrast to the previous administration of Manmohan Singh. In fairness to the latter, Manmohan was virtually, especially in the second term, the ‘kept PM’ of the Gandhi family and the Congress bigwigs. He only stood and waited, and thereby served the orgy of corruption that ravaged his government. And on foreign policy, his bright ideas and positive initiatives were given short shrift by others and India could not be counted upon for results, good or bad, by other countries. Inaction is Modi’s anathema, a part of the RSS training, but again to paraphrase Jayaprakash Narayan, good ideas are a necessary means of escape sometimes from total action. What ideas will Modi ultimately bring to bear on his neighbourly relationships apart from inviting them to the swearing in ceremony? The answer cannot be different from what senior BJP leaders told the reporters looking for scoops on Modi’s cabinet formation: "No one knows the mind of Narendra Modi."

But everyone seems to know the method of Mr. Modi, and there are positive expectations among East Asian countries and in the ASEAN group for a more pro-active India under the new Prime Minister. Many of them, especially Japan, want Modi to make India more assertive in Asia as a positive counterweight to China. And China is open to a Modi rewrite of the relationship between the two countries. A Chinese think tank has even called Modi the new ‘Nixon’ who could transform the relationship between the two Asian giants, just as Richard Nixon had ended the isolation between the US and China. As Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Modi had visited three countries: Japan, Singapore and China. Indian Chief Ministers are not world travelers but it may change under Modi as Prime Minister as he starts pushing them to look overseas for markets and investments.

His alleged aversion to the West could be an exaggeration. Despite the strictures that western countries heaped on him in the wake of the Gujarat mayhem in 2002, the BJP and the Hindutva are decidedly pro-market at home and pro-western in their world outlook. Consumer aspirations were part of the Modi wave that swept aside the state patronage system of the dynastic Congress. And the wave was sustained more by big money than virulent Hindu nationalism. And Modi himself has toned down the campaign rhetoric that picked on Pakistan for exporting terrorism and blamed Bangladesh for ill-treating its Hindu minorities and infiltrating West Bengal with illegal immigrants. The neighbourly invitations are further proof of toning down the old rhetoric. The big money that bankrolled the Modi campaign will look for its returns more in India’s linkages with the West than any other part of the world. And Modi has no pending inquiries against him for any human rights violations at home or abroad.

What roles will the States play in Modi’s India? Despite the hype in Tamil Nadu and the expected absence of the Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu (Jeyaram Jayalalithaa) and West Bengal (Mamata Banerjee) at the swearing-in ceremony, the invitations to the Sri Lankan President and the Prime Minister of Bangladesh should not be seen as snub to the states in the area of foreign relations. There is no way that Mr. Modi could have been selective in his invitations and excluded President Rajapaksa or any other South Asian leader. At the same time, there is no denying that the BJP and Mr. Modi personally will do much fence mending in Tamil Nadu after the swearing-in. The BJP prides itself as the Party of the ‘States’ in the centre-state dynamic of Indian federalism. Ascending to be the nation’s Prime Minister from being a successful State Chief Minister, Mr. Modi can relate to the state-side of that dynamic better than any previous Indian Prime Minister. And he is on record as having stated that he would encourage States to have a say in India’s foreign policy involving their respective neigbouring countries. This does not mean that he will stand to be blackmailed or dictated to, which of course he will not, but a greater involvement of States in designing foreign policy especially in regard to trade and investment could be expected. His Gujarat experience is indicative of such a shift.

Gods and Stars

President Rajapaksa might be thanking his gods and stars for Modi’s majority victory and the fantastic kickoff to their mutual relationship. But the further help of the same gods and stars will very much depend on the direction that the Sri Lankan government will take immediately after the President returns from Delhi. His indirect invitation to Chief Minister Wigneswaran to join the Presidential delegation to Delhi shows that President Rajapksa is sensitive to demonstrating to India that things are working well between Colombo and the Northern Province. What he is not sensitive to, however, is that more than a token Tamil presence is needed to show that things are really working well for the Thirteenth Amendment. He could have taken any or all of the Tamil hangers-on in and out of his government, including the Tiger turncoats. But he knows that they are not good enough even for show and tell. Then why carry them at public expense and with political embarrassment?

More to the point, how gratifying it would have been if the President himself had enabled the proper functioning of the Northern Provincial Council and its Chief Minister, and given no reason for Mr. Wigneswaran to refuse but every reason to accept the invitation and join the Sri Lankan delegation to Delhi. The facts are that rather than enabling the functioning of the NPC every effort has been made to stifle its operations. The list of such efforts is long but the most ridiculous one of them is the tussle over the Chief Secretary of the Northern Province. Pettifogging lawyers who would not appear for an employee in a Labour Tribunal have availed themselves to argue the inalienable constitutional rights of a Tamil Chief Secretary in Jaffna. Say that to any Indian Chief Minister at the swearing-in ceremony in Delhi, but make sure she or he doesn’t fall off the chair. Mr. Modi is known as a man for details, and he might turn an attentive ear to this one. Nothing much can or will happen at the first meeting between Narendra Modi and Mahinda Rajapaksa. But the initial meeting at the official inauguration could shape the so called chemistry between them. It is too early for us to say too much about political possibilities.

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