Two years of Modi's foreign policy: All about soft power?

07/29/2016 11:35 am ET Updated Sep 11, 2016

Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in May 2014. Two years later, one can easily acknowledge that while several areas of his domestic performance have been criticized in India (e.g. an impressive annual GDP growth around 7.5 per cent but without job creation, no real delivery on the economic front), his foreign policy initiatives have enabled the strengthening of ties between India and other countries as well as the improvement of India’s global profile.

India’s economic development plans: a basis for its foreign policy

Modi essentially came to power with a mandate to implement certain domestic reforms. His political mandate to foster economic growth has become a tool to reach out to the international community and, simultaneously, to ‘reshape’ India’s image. Promoting business and trade, and creating employment opportunities are key components of Modi’s diplomacy, and a way to speed up his 2014 ‘Make in India’ campaign. The conduct of foreign policy via diplomacy channels is an area in which the Prime Minister’s strategy has proven to be effective. He has been successful in leveraging foreign policy for domestic development, a field he has had some experience in as Chief Minister of Gujarat with his fast track diplomacy.

To fulfill both India’s economic and international agenda, Modi has gone abroad and has received many foreign leaders in India over the past two years, including US President Barack Obama. These visits have had both economic and strategic content. Prime Minister Modi’s meetings with foreign leaders are often well reported by international media. His interactions with political leaders from other countries have generally increased global interest and favorable comments in the foreign press. He has raised India’s attractiveness to the outside world, projected the country as a ‘rising power’ and restored investor confidence. According to figures published in the media, Modi’s visits to 12 countries in 2014-2015 yielded 20 billion dollars in foreign direct investment.

However, there has been some criticism of Modi’s foreign policy engagements (e.g. economic consequences, strategy, viability, timeline, substance). The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December last year is an example of a visit with both positives and negatives, leading to a major deal: the bullet train from Mumbai-Ahmedabad. On the one hand, the deal enables the further strengthening of ties between India and Japan; but, on the other hand, it is a very expensive project with India to pay Rs 98,000 crore for the 500km Shinkansen corridor. The viability of the project has been criticized as the ticket price will be as expensive as air tickets. As for his visit to Belgium earlier this year, Modi tweeted “Extensive & fruitful discussions with PM Charles Michel. We are committed to stronger India-Belgium ties”, though the visit did not lead to any substantive agreement.

Personal diplomacy: diaspora and social media

The Indian diaspora has become a constituency to resonate PM Modi’s economic agenda. No Indian leader before has engaged with the diaspora to the extent he has. By creating a direct link to India’s diaspora, Modi uses social media platforms to send out messages of key initiatives to influential targets in the audience. Public diplomacy through social media has become a modern and emerging foreign policy tool and an efficient means to support India’s development plans. Modi’s Twitter account currently has over 20 million followers.

Prime Minister Modi not only reaches out to India’s diaspora via social media, but his official visits abroad also aim at meeting the Indian community. He organizes massive events for India’s diaspora that attract many Indians. His visits usually create a buzz among Indians. This was for instance the case during his visit in November 2015 at Wembley Stadium in London. His key messages when addressing India’s diaspora (in the US, in the UK, in Australia, etc.) focus on changing the face of India. In Saudi Arabia, he met blue collar workers in early April, showing also that he cares about Indians abroad.

All about soft power?

Developed in 1990 by Joseph Nye, an American political scientist, the soft power concept describes the ability to persuade others to do something without using either force or coercion. Prime Minister Modi has been leveraging India’s soft power resources through social media, via the diaspora and with his fast track diplomacy to increase visibility, to enhance India’s image abroad, to strengthen links between India and foreign countries. The promotion of India’s soft power resources (e.g. Bollywood films, yoga, Buddhism, culture, music, cuisine) is aimed at meeting India’s foreign policy objectives and willingness to play a bigger role in global politics. His plans are to revive national pride in the country’s ancient values. One of Prime Minister Modi’s recent, successful results in that respect is the United Nation resolution last year, making June 21 the international yoga day. This is a major achievement, also in terms of communication. He is generally perceived (incl. outside of India) as a leader with a lot of charisma. He is seen as a good communicator, one that perfectly understands how important image is.

Two years is rather brief as a period to fully assess the results of Modi’s strategy. Moreover, diplomacy has to go beyond all of this. For the moment, Modi still looks determined to take all necessary steps to transform and project a new India. But there is a lot to do in terms of domestic reforms to enable an environment conducive to foreign investment and positive image of a leading, responsive –social, political and economic- and truly emerging nation.

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