Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Myanmar, Fiji, Australia: Why PM Modi's foreign trips are important.......

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently in Myanmar, the sixth country he is visiting since he took over on 26 May this year. So far, PM Modi has visited Bhutan (6-7 June), Brazil for BRICS summit (13-16 July), Nepal (3-4 August), Japan (30 August-3 September) and the United States (26-30 September).
By the time Modi completes six months in office, he would have visited nine countries in six foreign trips as the second and third legs of his current three-nation tour are Australia and Fiji respectively.
Some may wonder about PM Modi’s penchant for foreign travels while some may criticize him for his frequent foreign trips and staying away from pressing issues at home. His current 3-nation tour, for example, is the longest in terms of days by an Indian for decades and he will be back home after ten days on 20 November.
But such criticism would be misplaced and unwarranted. One, these are not pleasure trips but important official visits laden with important foreign policy, economic and strategic agendas.
Two, nowadays, prime ministers, presidents, foreign ministers and defence ministers all over the world are more or less like globe-trotting salesmen who tour the entire length and breadth of the globe for bringing more and more business to their country while simultaneously furthering their nation’s foreign policy.
Three, foreign policy has become so closely knit with economy and national development all over the world in past one or two decades and economic diplomacy has taken firm roots in international politics today that any leader who does not make frequent official trips abroad would actually be harming his or her nation. India is no exception to this and ever since the Kargil War every Indian PM’s foreign visits calendar is becoming increasingly crowded.
Four, it does not matter who is the Prime Minister of India as he or she will have to necessarily undertake official visits abroad; the more the merrier. Even if a politician like West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who is known for her dislike for foreign travel, becomes the PM of India one day, she too will have to spend practically a month out of one year abroad.
Moreover, the unwritten and unspoken practice of the Indian foreign policy establishment is to send President, Vice President, External Affairs Minister, Defence Minister, Home Minister and Finance Minister to those countries which India considers important enough but the Prime Minister could not find time to visit those during the tenure of the government. The first three in the above list are most important from the foreign policy perspective.
One may say that President Pranab Mukherjee has just visited Myanmar and Bhutan, the two countries which PM Modi too has visited. But then there are compelling reasons for this and moreover the fact that both the head of the state and the head of the government chose to visit Myanmar and Bhutan conveys the high degree of strategic importance the Modi government attaches to these two countries.
That is why I couldn’t help but smile wryly whenever I saw Indian media reports criticizing former President Pratibha Patil for her penchant for foreign trips. The critics never realized that it is seldom that President of India makes a personal choice in visiting a foreign country. The list of foreign countries to be visited by the President and the Vice President is drafted in the Ministry of External Affairs taking into account various foreign policy, economic and strategic considerations.
Those who balk at Indian leaders’ official trips abroad will do well to study the timelines of foreign trips undertaken by American leaders, particularly the US President and the Secretary of State. They will realize that in comparison PM Modi is not at all a frequent flier abroad and in fact his score is rather poor if one looks at the American leaders’ foreign itinerary.
One can have a fair idea about PM Modi’s ongoing 3-nation tour if one takes into account that during these ten days he would be meeting as many as forty world leaders. On Tuesday, the first day of his visit to Myanmar, PM Modi met Myanmar President Thein Sein.
His bilateral one-on-one meetings may well be with at least 25 foreign leaders. Twenty of these bilateral are confirmed while the MEA is trying to line up more such one-on-one meetings. Modi’s meetings with US President Barack Obama and Indonesian President Joko Widodo are still unconfirmed and are being worked out.
It is time that PM’s official foreign trips are taken seriously and given their due importance.