Behind the warm welcome that the PM will be receiving everywhere, lies the hard reality of the shifting global balance of economic power.
By Harsh V. Pant
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun a nine-day tour of three key Western nations which will first take him to France and Germany, where he plans to use his “Make In India” initiative to encourage investment from Europe’s two largest economies. In France, energy, defence, and infrastructure will take centre-stage as Modi will go on a boat ride with the French president on the Seine and interact with French business leaders before visiting a World War I memorial, where he will pay tribute to 10,000 Indians who lost their lives fighting alongside the French.
It is important to recall that India was Francois Hollande’s first destination outside Europe and Francophone Africa since assuming the French presidency in 2012, sending an unmistakable message on India’s importance. The two nations signed a strategic partnership agreement as far back as 1998 and the relationship is one of the most institutionalised of India’s bilateral relations. The two nations also share a fiercely independent outlook in their foreign policies in which it is difficult to accept a second-tier position easily. There was a reason why India was often described as the France of the Third World.
France remains an important defence partner for India because it has been willing to offer exceptionally generous level of “offsets” in its defence engagements with India and has been very open with technology transfers. Yet talks on the proposed purchase of 126 Rafale planes have been ongoing for more than three years because of differences over pricing as well as local assembly. France is one of the largest suppliers of nuclear fuel to India and energy will be a major driver of France-India ties in the coming years. Modi will seek to speed up price negotiations for the building of two reactors by state-run Areva SA of 1,650 megawatts each, in Maharashtra.
In Germany, the real European powerhouse, Modi will meet chancellor Angela Merkel and inaugurate the Hannover Messe, considered one of the world’s largest congregations of industry gurus. Focusing on fostering economic ties, Modi will join a CEO roundtable meet with 800 business leaders, besides attending an Indo-German summit. Modi is likely to focus on a range of issues including clean energy, infrastructure development, smart cities project among others. A letter of intent on a solar rooftop project and another on cooperation between some German and Indian cities may also be signed.
Modi will then travel to Canada – visiting Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver – where he will focus on investment opportunities in India and reach out to the large Indian diaspora. This trip will mark the first stand-alone visit by an Indian prime minister since 1973. Modi is likely to finalise a deal to secure uranium imports after a 2013 agreement ended a 39-year embargo on nuclear trade with India following its first nuclear test. Canada’s Cameco Corp, one of the world’s biggest uranium producers, has been negotiating with New Delhi for a long term supply arrangement.
Though Canada was one of the first Western countries to recognise the growing importance of Modi in Indian polity at a time when others like the US and Germany were ignoring him, Modi still remains an unknown entity in the larger Western world. His election has changed the perception about India and there are hopes that India might be finally getting its act together.
But behind the warm welcome that Modi will be receiving everywhere, lies the hard reality of the shifting global balance of economic power. India is at the heart of this recalibration. 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 political divide in these countries. It will be up to Modi to sell India effectively to an audience waiting to hear a positive story. 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 about your future. 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 back and Modi is best positioned to narrate it to a largely receptive audience. For its part, Europe will also have to articulate a new vision of the Indo-European partnership at a time of rapid changes in the global balance of power.
As major Western powers come to terms with India’s growing heft, the prime minister would do well to recognise that it enjoys a lot of goodwill in the West and Western liberal democracies genuinely want India to succeed. With this in mind, he should seriously nurture ties with the West. 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.