Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as a master orator, is known to coin sarcastic one-liners or terms that cut right to the bone while attacking opponents. During the run up to the elections that brought the BJP-led NDA to power in May this year, his repeated use of the term Shehzada (Prince) to describe Rahul Gandhi irritated his opponents and regaled his supporters no end.
After assuming office, Prime Minister Modi has been restrained and statesman-like in his speeches but occasionally, he does make a considered statement that raises the hackles of the opponents. Addressing Indian Army troops in Leh, he made a remark that at once conveyed what has often been left unsaid and at the same time, riled Pakistan no end.
“The neighbouring country has lost the strength to fight a conventional war, but continues to engage in the proxy war of terrorism,” the Prime Minister told the jawans, in an obvious reference to Pakistan's continued support to the proxy war against India. In making that statement, he also drove home the point that Pakistan is now a country that is far behind India in every respect, not just militarily. As a country besieged by internal strife, economically weak and riven by sectarian violence, Pakistan is barely surviving as a nation.
That stinging remark and its timing, in my eyes, are symptomatic of Narendra Modi's style: separating the ritualistic from hard reality. His diplomatic decisions are so far marked by unconventional thinking and ability to catch almost everyone off guard.
Take the initiative to invite all Heads of States from the SAARC countries for his swearing-in ceremony. It was completely out-of-the-box and caught Pakistan in particular, by total surprise. For Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, responding to the invite was a Hobson's choice: damned if he accepted, damned if he didn't. So Sharif came to Delhi amidst much fanfare and rising expectations. Much was written and spoken about in the media about a possible breakthrough in the fraught relationship between New Delhi and Islamabad after their meeting. That’s where the Prime Minister again surprised observers. In his mind, the optics of a ceremonial gesture (swearing-in) were never going to overshadow the hard reality of the India-Pakistan relationship.
So when Islamabad insisted on meeting the Kashmiri separatist leaders before official talks with New Delhi, the Modi government drew the red line: talk to us or continue to talk to the separatists. Seasoned diplomats and Pakistan experts may have slammed the decision to call off talks, but in doing so the Modi government has sent a clear signal: New Delhi has changed. The status quo is not the norm anymore. Successive governments, including that of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, may have allowed the ritual of Hurriyat leaders meeting the Pakistan High Commissioner in New Delhi before every India-Pakistan confabulation. But it is not going to be acceptable anymore.
Similarly, most commentators expected Narendra Modi to be bitter about the shabby treatment the United States meted out to him over the past decade and more. But as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has seemingly kept aside his perceived personal pique and decided to reboot ties with Washington the moment the Obama administration reached out to him in the wake of his massive electoral victory. In fact, the world, it seems wants to reach out to Modi. This September, he will be meeting President Obama, China’s President Xi Jingping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in quick succession. His talks with Abe, a personal friend, have the potential to alter the geopolitics in Asia, as both India and Japan find ways to jointly deal with an increasingly assertive China.
His trips to Tokyo and the US will be watched very keenly in Beijing even as China is keen to take its relations with India on a much higher plane than its current status. Modi, a pro-business leader, too is clear that India must take advantage of Chinese investment and expertise in infrastructure development. The Prime Minister is pragmatic enough to understand that India has a lot to catch up on with China, both militarily and economically, and therefore it is wise to keep engaging with China on economic matters even as India seeks to build its military strength to a level that can act as a deterrent against any Chinese military provocation. His security managers however stress in private that Modi will draw a lakshman rekha on boundary negotiations with Beijing, notwithstanding his desire to have good economic relations with China.
Engaging big powers apart, the Prime Minister’s diplomatic outreach to smaller neighbours in South Asia also signals a welcome change from the recent past. That he chose to travel to Bhutan, perhaps India’s closest ally, for his first visit outside India, was an indication that the Modi government will try and carry the immediate neighbourhood along since he believes a stable periphery is a must for India to progress. His trip to Nepal— the first bilateral visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 17 years—was aimed at repairing the fractured relationship with a country that remains an important part of India’s geostrategic calculus.
The diplomatic initiatives apart, to me, the first three months of the new government have been marked by a series of small but significant steps in boosting the morale of the neglected armed forces. The decision to build the National War Memorial at a site abutting the India Gate, for one. Allowing 49% foreign direct investment in the defence manufacturing sector may not be enough to attract long term investment in this crucial field, but it’s a start. But more importantly, Modi has begun meeting the three service chiefs one-on-one, once a month, a practice that gives the armed forces an opportunity to directly keep the Prime Minister apprised of the issues that need his immediate attention. Of course, restoring pay parity of military officers with their civilian counterparts and full implementation of the One Rank One Pension principle remain pending, but both should be done by the end of the year, according to officials in the know.
For anyone who expected radical—and dare I say drastic—changes to India’s military and diplomatic policies after Modi took office, his initial months may seem mildly disappointing. What the Prime Minister has however done, is restore the authority of his office and bring in a sense of decisiveness in governance that was sorely missing in UPA II. That, to my mind, is the highlight of Modi’s first 100 days in power.
(The writer is Security & Strategic Affairs Editor with NDTV)
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of dna