Modi has injected much needed pragmatism in a relationship which was adrift for quite some time. Now the ball is in Europe’s court.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Europe last month to galvanise India’s ties with key European powers as well as to keep the momentum of his past visit to Europe going. In what has now become his signature style, he touched upon key aspects of Indian foreign policy interests pertaining to each of the four nations—Germany, Russia, Spain and France—and tried to raise India’s profile in a part of the world which is getting consumed by its internal turmoil with each passing day. Despite Europe’s inward-looking foreign policy orientation at the moment, several aspects of Modi’s visit stand out which will help India over the long term.
The focus of Modi’s visit was clearly on boosting trade and economic ties with Europe. His 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 Emmanuel Macron to Xi Jinping, from Theresa May 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.
In Germany, Modi addressed the Indo-German Business Forum that saw the participation of top German CEOs, while in Spain, he exhorted CEOs of leading Spanish companies to participate in initiatives like Make in India, saying immense potential awaits them in the fast-growing nation. To the Russian defence industry, he sold his government’s new policy of allowing Indian companies to manufacture defence equipment with foreign players. Modi remains keen on getting Europeans involved in his flagship programmes such as Make in India, Clean India, Skill India, Digital India, and Smart Cities.
The other issue area which took centrestage during Modi’s tour was terrorism. Europe has been suffering from a spate of terror attacks over the last two years and the attacks in London have further underscored the enormity of the challenge facing the continent. In Russia, he urged the global community to block funding, weapons and communication modes of terrorists and to rise above the good terrorism, bad terrorism binary. Against the backdrop of growing concerns in India about Russia’s gravitation towards Pakistan, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that India is facing a serious problem due to the menace of terrorism and that the situation is not an “imaginary thing”. Terrorism was also a common theme in Modi’s discussions with the German, Spanish and French leaderships. Unlike in the past, when Europe used to look at India’s terror problem primarily through the lens of Kashmir, there is now a greater understanding of the changing nature of the terror threat and how certain states abet the process of radicalisation. This has provided Modi with an opportunity to develop greater synergies with Europe in tackling this menace.
This is also a time when Europe is concerned about its own future under the onslaught of Great Britain’s impending exit from the European Union and America’s flirtation with retrenchment under Donald Trump. German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave vent to these concerns when she suggested that “the times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over”. European powers now want to hunker down and are looking for new partners. China is well positioned to take advantage of this shift, given its economic heft. But European liberal values sit uneasily with Chinese authoritarian capitalism.
India as a democratic rising power needs to position itself accordingly and Modi was doing just that in Europe: presenting a subtle counter narrative to China’s rise. Modi’s message in Germany was simple but no less potent: “India wants the world not just to be interconnected but also that it should be sensibly run... Germany will always find India as a powerful, prepared and capable partner.”
Trump’s arrival has accentuated the trans-Atlantic fault lines as his failure to commit to the Paris climate accord and to NATO’s Article Five during his Europe trip last month has angered many Europeans. The US President took the opportunity to berate his NATO allies over defence spending, complaining that they owe “massive amounts of money from past years.” It is indeed true that only five of 28 allies meet the agreed-to two per cent of GDP threshold for defence spending, but all have charted a course to get there in the coming years. Trump’s repeated criticisms of NATO allies not pulling their weight and ongoing investigations into his campaign’s ties with Russia have allies on edge even as they fear that mounting domestic scandals could sap Washington’s ability to respond to challenges ranging from Russia to terrorism to North Korea.
Trump has also been denounced as a “security risk for the West” by Merkel’s political opponent, Thomas Opperman, the leader of the Social Democrats (SDP). The French President Emmanuel Macron has likened Trump’s diplomatic approach to those of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Putin. He explained his rather tense handshake with Trump as an attempt to “show that we won’t make little concessions, even symbolic ones”.
India under Modi wants to present itself as a defender of global order: an order that has benefitted India but is now under threat from Trump’s isolationist tendencies and China’s growing assertiveness. Describing the Paris agreement as “a collective asset of the world”, Modi assured the world that India will “be with the accord, and be even if there is no accord”. “The protection of the environment and the mother planet is an article of faith,” Modi said at a joint news conference with French President Macron in Paris. He wants to project India as a responsible global power interested in preserving the extant order.
Modi’s outreach to Europe has been impressive and sustained over the last three years. It remains to be seen how European powers will reciprocate to this outreach. Modi has injected much needed pragmatism in a relationship which was adrift for quite some time. Now the proverbial ball is in Europe’s court.