Modi's Can-Do Attitude Clicks in Europe

Harsh V. Pant is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is "India's Afghan Muddle" (HarperCollins).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on a nine-day tour of three key western nations which has already taken him to France and Germany, where has used use his "Make in India" initiative to encourage investment from Europe's two largest economies. Defence, energy, and infrastructure took centrestage in Paris as Modi went on a boat ride with the French President on the Seine and interacted with French business leaders before visiting a World War I memorial, where he paid tribute to 10,000 Indians who lost their lives fighting with the French. In Germany, the real European powerhouse, Modi met Chancellor Angela Merkel and inaugurated the Hannover Messe, considered one of the world's largest congregations of industry gurus, in which India is a partner country this year.

Modi's unabashed selling of India as an investment destination is the most striking aspect of his outreach to the West. Unlike his predecessors, India now has a Prime Minister who is more in tune with global diplomacy than most of the foreign policy bureaucracy and commentariat in Delhi. One of the most important roles that leaders of major economies are expected to play in today's day and age is that of a salesman. From Barack Obama to Xi Jinping, from David Cameron to Angela Merkel, the first order of business for most governments today is to sell their countries as welcoming places for doing business. And Modi is a salesman par excellence. Pledging a stable and transparent tax regime, Modi has been busy wooing global investors, arguing that development is "not a mere political agenda" but an "article of faith" for his government and has sought international support to achieve the objectives crucial for growth.

He has also been underlining that his government means business. "India is a now changed country... our regulatory regime is much more transparent, responsive and stable," Modi said in Germany as he promised investors that his government is working on a "war footing" to improve the business environment further. This is something that global investors have long wanted to hear from Indian leaders. Today they see a leader who has the mandate to deliver on his commitments, and they seem impressed.

In France, Modi's 'can-do' attitude and pragmatic instincts were unleashed as he tried to move forward on projects that have been stuck for a long time. The Rafale deal has been in limbo for the past three years over terms of procedures and pricing negotiations even as the Indian Air Force has been worried about meeting its "critical operational necessity." Modi managed to break the deadlock with his out-of-the-box approach when he signed a government-to-government deal with France for the supply of 36 Rafale fighter jets in "fly-away" condition "as quickly as possible." Though this goes against his 'Make in India' pitch, he understood the urgency of IAF demands. In some ways, this was compensated by the support Modi's 'Make in India' campaign received from Airbus which declared that the company was "ready to manufacture in India, for India and the world." Airbus Group is likely to increase its sourcing of aerospace parts from Indian companies to $2 billion in the next five years. India and France also inked deals aimed at early operationalisation of civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

Modi's ability to effectively link India's past with the nation's future was underscored when he talked about India's aspirations for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. Where previous Indian governments had been diffident in highlighting the contribution of Indians to the two World Wars, Modi paid a tribute to about 10,000 Indians who had died fighting alongside their French counterparts in World War I, underlining the fact that Indians have been sacrificing their lives for world peace and stability for over a century. As such, India's place on the UNSC is the nation's right. This is an argument that should have been made long back, but Congress governments have been reluctant to take this up for ideological reasons.

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Modi has done well in France and Germany, but behind the warm welcome that Modi has received also lies the hard reality of the shifting global balance of economic power. India is at the heart of this recalibration. Modi's election has changed perceptions about India and there are hopes that India is finally getting its act together. At a time when Europe is struggling economically, and the larger western world is jittery about China's growing global heft, strong ties with India are now a cornerstone of the foreign policies of most western nations, and support for strong bilateral ties with India cuts across the party and political divide.

Modi's critics at home may crib about his foreign policy ventures being full of hype, but a large part of global diplomacy today is about selling a narrative about your nation that inspires confidence. If any political leader in India can do that effectively today, it is Modi. The Indian story is much more attractive today than it was a year ago, and Modi is best positioned to narrate it to a largely receptive audience.

India and the West will not always agree, but it's a sign of mature partnerships when partners can gracefully agree to disagree. New Delhi stands to benefit from leveraging partnerships rather than shunning them. Today, India is well positioned to define its bilateral partnerships on its own terms and would do well to continue engaging more closely with those countries that can facilitate its rise in regional and global prominence. Modi seems to understand this much better than most of his critics - and predecessors.

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