The westernised Indian elite has long known that their reputations as intellectuals, scholars, creative artists, management moghuls have first to be established with foreigners before they are presented to Indians. International recognition must precede the testing of Indian waters. One always thought that this trick was the preserve of that threatened species called the Nehruvian elite which had guaranteed access to Oxford or Cambridge or the Ivy League Universities or the Art Academies of France. One certainly did not expect a home grown, self made, Hindu nationalist to cotton on so quickly to the extraordinary impact an international image can have on one’s national constituency.
What else explains the stark contrast between our Prime Minister’s cautious, fumbling, almost lack lustre, moves on the domestic front with the flurry of initiatives on the foreign policy front - some of which genuinely take your breath away ?
On the domestic front it seems that the inevitability of incrementalism has been accepted as a strategic response, a one tentative step forward and a half step backward. The choice of Ministers (with exceptions) in the Council of Ministers was largely uninspiring. In some cases there seemed to be no particular logic to justify either the incumbent’s selection or the portfolio allocated. The much touted ‘minimum government maximum governance’ seemed to have stopped with a very half hearted regrouping and reclustering of some departments. The attempts to get politically appointed Governors to leave with the Home Secretary dropping threats was clumsy and ham handed. The leaking of the report on NGOs and their alleged adverse impact on economic growth showed predictable lack of intelligence from the oxymoronically named Intelligence Bureau. The Gopal Subrahmanyam Affair showed flat footedness and pettiness. The Delhi University brouhaha was unimaginatively handled and the famed communication skills of the HRD Minister seemed sorely wanting. The Rail Budget was competent and forward looking but hardly set anyone or anything on fire and certainly did not seem to be the forerunner of a bold new vision. The Budget was a great dampener- a confused hash of measures, completely bereft of an overarching vision of economic transformation that one had come to expect from Narendra Modi.
Contrast this with his initiatives on the foreign policy front. The invitation to the neighbouring Heads of Government and in particular to Nawaz Sharif to the swearing in ceremony was a gesture of pure inspiration. It signalled a willingness to bat off the front foot in a way that even Vajpayee had been hesitant to. Not since Sachin hit that famous six off Shoaib in the World Cup 2003 had there been a stroke in India Pak relations which sent such a frisson of excitement across the subcontinent. When everyone expected tired lines of ‘unless the terror infrastructure is dismantled….’ variety being repeated ( albeit in a more thunderous voice than that of his predecessor) Modi was vowing the world with the vocabulary of peace, friendship and free trade and commerce. In one stroke and in a single day, Modi registered his arrival on the international stage as the tallest leader in the region who will henceforth set both the agenda and the pace of mutual relations among South Asian nations.
This was followed quickly by another masterstroke- that of singling out Bhutan for his first international visit as a Head of Government. It made a small, proud nation which must always have felt like a Lilliputian among giants, feel special and simultaneously sent a signal to the other small states that smallness of size would not henceforth, diminish their strategic importance and that they need not fear the big brother. It also signalled his deeper understanding of cultural and civilizational ties within South Asia and sent a clear message that he saw South Asian Regional cooperation as central to his international strategy. That he saw SARC as far more important than his predecessors ever did, was eloquently confirmed with yet another stroke of genius- the call for India to launch a SARC satellite which will allow a cooperative, participative use of peaceful space technologies.
As if all this excitement was not enough for the first fifty days we have had the Brics Summit, the Brics Bank creation agreement, the meetings with Xin and Putin, a cascading waterfall of events seemingly designed to construct a new, modern, internationalist Modi who appears as though born to the Manor. Gone is the awkwardness of a provincial leader, inexperienced in the ways and mores of international diplomacy. It has been replaced by a man wearing beautifully cut ‘Bund Gulla’ suits, with a confident stride, a firm handshake, a straight look in the eyes and the silken cadences of a statesman.
Aspirational India has always tried to view itself through its perceptions of the foreigners’ perceptions of India and Indians. What the foreigners say or feel about us matters much more than what we ourselves may feel or see. So if now the Putins and the Obamas and the Xins and the Rouseffs and the Zumas and the Merkals see Modi in a new light will we too not forget all those bad Karmas of 2002 and hail a new incarnation?