Modi and the Multilateral

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked the international system when his government blackmailed the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation by saying, in effect, “give us a permanent food security solution or we will block the unrelated trade facilitation agreement (TFA).” Despite all New Delhi’s claims, the truth is India’s action had almost no justification. If it had not blocked the TFA, nothing would have happened to the existing or any future food security programme of India’s. Why? Because these doles have no impact on the international trade policies of anyone else.

What is more important is what the TFA business tells us about Modi’s attitude towards multilateralism in general. I feel it confirms his instinct to generally downgrade the importance of multilateral bodies and issues. They are, in his eyes, a lesser time-consuming variety of diplomacy that goes against the grain of his own administrative style. To top it off, global diplomacy among many nations has little obvious overlap with the more tangible and immediate policy concerns of the Modi government.

Thus Modi dropped any mention of India’s ambitions to a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council in his election manifesto. To be fair, this is something he shares with Manmohan Singh. Like Singh, Modi publicly declares India’s interest in pursuing such a seat but does nothing to actually get it done.

Modi ignored China’s invitation to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. His contribution to the East Asia Summit was negligible with his main concentration on the bilateral relationship with Myanmar. I suspect India will contribute minimally to the G-20 summit in Brisbane, at best using the venue to make noises for a domestic audience about black money and transfer tax arbitration. This has not always been the case: the Pittsburgh G-20 summit was among the most successful and India’s fingerprints were all over the final document.

Even climate change – and Modi is among the world leaders who takes climate change very seriously, telling a group of us once “climate change is my special interest” – his preference is for mitigation strategies at home. On the international front, Modi has been aggressive with bilateral agreements with Japan and the US. On the global front, there have been ideas or suggestions coming from New Delhi.

The contrast with a Jawaharlal Nehru or a Singh could not be greater. Both of them saw being active on the multilateral stage a key element of India’s foreign policy. Modi is much closer to the style of P.V. Narasimha Rao with a clear set of domestic priorities and interest in international relations only to the extent that it converges with those domestic priorities.

Modi’s own policy style mitigates against multilateralism. As many who know him or have worked with him say, the Indian prime minister keeps his agenda to a workable set of policy issues rather than trying to do something about every problem in the country. His view is that it is better to genuinely dig a deep and sound hole in the ground rather than stick in a quick toe in every puddle you see. Voters flock to you if the see you fulfill promises.

But this makes multilateralism unappetizing for Modi. He has complained privately of global bodies with their multiplicity of small countries all complaining about even smaller issues. Bilateral ties with large or at least effective countries fits his temperament better. Six or seven tangible themes, agreements tailored to helping further these policies and a little theatre to sell it to the public.

Just the kind of thing that a multilateral meeting is ill-equipped to do. One can see how Australia is struggling to keep the G-20 agenda to a manageable size and avoid having to accommodate the agenda of every shrill NGO or even government.

Modi is learning to at least use multilateral podiums to sell his India story. As one major US policy institute’s head told me, “Erdogan of Turkey, Sisi of Egypt and so many others. They all come to the UN General Assembly with plans to change the international narrative about their countries. Only Modi succeeded in doing so.”

More practically, “make in India” can never succeed without a much more open international trade and investment environment in India. Without that, a country’s manufacturing centers cannot plug into the global supply chains that make a country export competitive. This is most markedly true in electronics – supposedly a core area for the Modi regime.

One can see Modi becoming more pro-active internationally in his second term or even after an India’s economic revival is well under way. But on the trade side, India must become a lot more constructive in the next two years or else its hoped-for manufacturing boom will be a bust.

Copyright © 2014 the Hindustan Times

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