The following article was published as a Transatlantic Take by the German Marshall Fund on April 16, 2015.
Diplomatically speaking, it has been a busy first year in power for India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. In addition to hosting the leaders of the United States, China, and Russia, he has embarked upon state visits to India’s major democratic partners — including Japan, the United States, and Australia — and attended multilateral summits in Brazil, Nepal, Australia, and Myanmar.
Over the past week, Modi undertook an unconventional transatlantic tour to France, Germany, and Canada. This constituted his first visit to Europe as prime minister and a common theme was implicit in that all three countries are G7 members, and as such, advanced, industrialized democracies. While Modi has received some criticism at home for his foreign trips, the flurry of diplomatic activity in his first year as prime minister indicates his clear desire to position India as an active international actor. Modi’s multifaceted agenda on his latest set of visits also conformed to what is now a familiar pattern of international engagement. Broadly speaking, his transatlantic tour over the past week served five important purposes.
The first was to seek investment and technological partnerships with the goal of rapidly developing India’s economy. This objective is at the centerpiece of Modi’s domestic agenda and political platform. While poverty levels in India have fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, the country is still home to the largest number of the world’s poor. The opportunity for growth is now immense given India’s political stability, market size, and low wages.
As advanced economies, France, Germany, and Canada are well-placed to be partners in India’s development. For this reason, Modi met privately with French business leaders in infrastructure and defense technology in Paris as well as investors in Toronto. He visited the Airbus facility in Toulouse and the Siemens vocational training center in Berlin. Modi’s participation in the Hannover Messe, the world’s largest industrial fair, also highlights India’s privileged role this year as a partner country. The prime minister used this opportunity to advertise business opportunities in India, which is proving a rare bright spot in a slowing global economy.
The second objective, closely tied to the first, involves outreach to the Indian diaspora, whose investments have helped drive the Indian growth story. Diaspora outreach is particularly relevant for Canada, which is home to over 1.2 million people of Indian origin. In France, Modi’s engagement with the local Indian community was broadcast to French territories, many of which have sizeable ethnic Indian populations.
Third, there is naturally a political and diplomatic dimension, which involves increasing the face-time and improving personal relations with other world leaders. Modi took a boat tour on the Seine with French President François Hollande and had lunch and dinner with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. He has also long enjoyed a strong rapport with his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, who was among the first world leaders to call Modi following his election victory last year. Additionally, in an implicit acknowledgement of India’s appreciation for democratic traditions, Modi opted to meet privately with leaders from his host countries’ second-largest political parties, including former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Sigmar Gabriel, leader of Germany’s Social Democrats.
The fourth dimension, and the one that has grabbed headlines, involved strategic relations. France, in particular, has historically been a close partner of India in terms of defense, space, and nuclear technologies. The announcement that India would buy 36 Dassault Rafale combat aircraft, with the option of buying more, was especially significant, and the deal promises to keep that platform’s production line running.
Finally, there were aspects to Modi’s visits that were of considerable symbolic significance. In France, Modi visited a memorial at Neuve-Chappelle honoring the Indian soldiers who perished during World War I. Although little-remembered in either Europe or India today, over 60,000 Indians died fighting in Europe, with some units suffering casualty rates of over 100 percent as replacements were decimated. In Hannover, Modi unveiled a public statue of an Indian icon, Mahatma Gandhi. And in Toronto, Modi paid his respects at a memorial for the 1985 bombing of an Indian airliner that was en route from Canada to India. The attack, in which 329 people were killed, was the worst terrorist attack in aviation history until 9/11. Modi’s visit to the Toronto memorial underscored the common threat posed by terrorism to India and the West.
In the age of jet-setting diplomacy, there are diminishing marginal returns to official visits by heads of government. However, the rich agenda on offer during Modi’s tour to Europe and North America offers one example of purposeful messaging and specific deliverables. Modi’s economic agenda was, as usual, at the forefront. But, equally, the political aspects related to India’s common values with the transatlantic community should not be overlooked.