In a rarity, India’s foreign policy became part of stump speeches Sunday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi showcased his recent achievements at Patna and Amethi. Speaking at the NDA rally from Gandhi Maidan in Patna, Bihar, Modi mentioned how on his request, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman increased the Haj quota for India’s Muslims to 2,00,000 and ordered release of over 800 Indians from Saudi jails during his visit to New Delhi last week. From the Gandhi pocket borough of Amethi he thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for the Indo-Russian joint venture for AK203 rifles that would replace the ageing INSAS soon. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also read out a statement from Putin at the rally.
While in the former, the Saudi mention would act as a sop for Nitish Kumar’s Muslim support base, in the latter, it was used to embellish claims that Modi government has done more for employment in Amethi than the Gandhi family. “Smriti Irani has done more than the winning candidate,” Modi quipped in a clear swipe at Rahul Gandhi.
Subdued but not entirely lost to the media despite India-Pakistan tensions over Pulwama terror strike was India’s first appearance as guest of honour at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) ministerial in Abu Dhabi (UAE) last week. Significance of this was underscored by the empty chairs of Pakistan delegation that absented in protest failing to prevent India’s participation. While the OIC stuck to it’s long-held position on Jammu and Kashmir, reactions in Pakistani press clearly show the tectonic shift in India’s favour. This happened amid reports of Arab mediation in facilitating Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s release and return from Pakistani captivity.
It is interesting that foreign policy dividends are being drafted in a Modi campaign, for this was an area of least exposure when he took over as PM in 2014. Apart from occasional business trips to raise the profile of his Vibrant Gujarat summits, Modi had not cut his teeth on this front. If anything, there were headwinds of visa restrictions imposed on him from more than a dozen nations, including the United States and United Kingdom.
So his first decision on taking over, to invite heads of governments from the SAARC region to his swearing-in ceremony to kickstart his neighbourhood first policy showed signs of a quick learner. He made Bhutan his first foreign stopover, which might have explained the tiny Himalayan kingdom not wavering in the face of China breathing down their neck during the Doklam standoff. He followed it up by sagaciously accepting an invite from President Barack Obama to visit the USA, putting behind him the bad taste of the visa denial row.
Not only did Modi become the first Prime Minister to visit Israel after the two nations established diplomatic relations in 1992, he also went to Palestine, with the Israeli Air Force providing security to a Jordan government chopper carrying Modi to fly from Amman to Ramallah in West Bank in January 2018. Similarly, the Saudis bestowing their highest civilian award on the Indian Prime Minister did not take away from the engagements with Iran. While the Chabahar port got operationalised in December 2017, even the United States waived India from its sanctions list on Iran last year. And Modi’s personal chemistry with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has not stopped him from forging a post-Doklam reset with China and Xi Jinping.
Recently, Israel’s National Security Advisor took a flight from Delhi to Tel Aviv, for the first time flying over Saudi air space in an Air India jetliner. Sources inform of how, India did some off the shelf buying of specific weaponry from Russia for the September 2016 post-Uri surgical strikes, and from Israel for the February 26 Balakot airstrikes. More on this sometime later.