Sunday, June 12, 2016

From Panchsheel to 'High Five'

Modi in US

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) shakes hands with members of Congress after addressing a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol June 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. PIC/AFP. (photo courtesy ABP News)

Article first published in +ABP NEWS Click here

Is it just we Indians that lose all sense of objectivity — while judging the performance of our leaders abroad? Or does it happen only when Narendra Modi speaks to an international audience? With him — critiques and supporters — tend to ignore substance and content to focus on form, accent, pronunciation, attire and historical gaffes.

Surely Americans made fun of Bushisms, disagreed and criticized his policies — but none disrespected “The President”. The same was true for Sarkozy, perhaps. And, I am willing to bet though his “democratic” detractors may ridicule Donald Trump — should he be elected POTUS their attitude will change overnight.

I recall at an event in New Delhi in which Robert Giuliani was speaking. A British delegate from Hong Kong asked a question referring to Bush as “Rambo”. Oh boy, one had to see to believe how Giuliani tore him apart to shreds. That’s what I call national pride.

The real point to note after a speech — in my view  -is neither form nor even content — but impact. This is where Modi scores above many other world leaders of the day. I am even willing to grant that — Americans are trained and programmed to clap, cheer and rise for standing ovations. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter whether they stood up 60+ times for #Modi and only 33 times for Man Mohan Singh. What really matters is how much of Modi’s speech has registered and resonated with them — what jarred, perhaps — and what was the overall perception and ultimate takeaway.

True Rajiv Gandhi also created an impression. So, would have Nehru and Indira Gandhi in the context of their times. But, a few crucial differences have emerged since then. First, the world order has changed since the end of the cold war. Just as nature abhors vacuum — a menacingly rising China is fast filling up space given away in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But, even more significant is the rise of terror (largely Islamic) across the world. On all these scores India’s strategic importance for the US has exponentially increased.

In this revised equation — India is, arguably, the only viable entity to offer some degree of foil to China in South Asia. All other countries in the region — not just Pakistan but Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar would only be too willing play footsie (and, more) with China. On fighting terror — the trustworthiness of these countries — especially — Pakistan is even more suspect.
Of course, for the US — Pakistan is not wholly dispensable. If not anything — it has huge potential of damage. So despite bluffing them on Osama and acting as double agents for Taliban — the US can’t afford to dump them altogether. But, certainly Pakistan cannot hope to remain the favourite Asian nephew of the Americans.

One can justifiably argue that, any other Indian Prime Minister in Modi’s place would have also caught on to this reality and recalibrated foreign policy accordingly. But, herein lies the importance of body language and confidence.

Modi’s success lies in seizing the moment and hitting the message home. No one would have the illusion that India can claim a status of an ‘equal’ with America. But, it can certainly expect to be regarded as the “first among equals” — when it comes to America’s Asia game plan. Here Modi has played his cards eminently well and through a series of smart moves become from a “persona non-grata” to a good-friend of Barrack  – even exchanging high fives in private — if some reports are to be believed.

A long way really from  -the pious platitudes of Panchsheel, Non-Alignment and the “good-friends” spiel.