Beyond Modi's 'selfie diplomacy'

Beyond Modi's 'selfie diplomacy'
Indian Prime Minister Modi shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li
PHOTO: Reuters

The high point of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's energetic whirl of diplomacy that has taken him to a record number of countries in his first year in office came a little before 4pm on May 15 this year.

That's when he whipped out his smartphone (yet again) and clicked a self-portrait or 'selfie' with his host, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, in Beijing's Temple of Heaven.

That image, with an unblushing message from the Indian prime minister saying: "It's selfie time! Thanks Premier Li," was tweeted to his 13 million followers on Twitter and was said to have been viewed over 30 million times on a Chinese social media website.

It was a curious triumph: a fraught relationship with a difficult neighbour had been reduced to a pop image but it made for the most telling story at home, especially after the Wall Street Journal chose to go overboard with a story on how Modi had possibly taken "the most powerful selfie in history" - simply because it put the leaders of the world's two most populous nations in the same frame!

That story was replayed endlessly in Indian media outlets as yet another sign that India had taken the world by storm although the selfie theme has been heavily played out since it is integral to the foreign jaunts undertaken by the prime minister - in Australia, in Fiji, in Mongolia and just about every capital that he has graced in what is constantly and rather carelessly referred to as 'Modi's charm offensive'.

Such has been the triumphalism of Modi's personalised brand of diplomacy that few analysts have gone beyond the theatrics of the visits.

His foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, has been airbrushed out of the picture and little has been heard or seen of her on the diplomatic scene.

Modi though has put on a riveting show for India in the past year, visiting nearly two dozen countries across four continents.

He is very much the photo-ops leader, playing the drums in Japan or trying out a fiddle in Mongolia and above all using his selfie routine in a carefully scripted exercise to garner the maximum visibility for himself.

A vital element of this show is the Indian diaspora, which the BJP uses rather effectively to inflate its global profile.

A large chunk of non-resident Indians (NRIs) and even those who are citizens of their adopted countries identify with the Hindutva or Hindu supremacist philosophy of the party, and it is this cheering chorus line which has turned Modi's visits into rock-star performances abroad, most impressively in New York's Madison Square Garden last September.

While he 'speed-dated' the big powers, as the Brookings Institution director described it, one clear focus of Modi's foreign policy initiatives has been Asia, and specifically India's South Asian neighbours where he has been keen to portray himself as a friend that can be trusted.

This was a priority that he signalled at his swearing-in ceremony in May 2014 when he gathered around him the leaders of Saarc (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) countries.

But it is here, on the South Asian stage, that Modi's personal and party predilections have been played out to reveal the shortcomings of a strategic view on world affairs, especially in dealing with China and Pakistan and more so in coming to grips with the situation in West Asia.

Did the BJP government's supra foreign minister manage to change perceptions and alter the fragile equations in the region? Far from it. A signal failure has been on Pakistan where a dangerous jingoism permeates the thinking of the prime minister and his coterie.

The on-again and off-again relations with Islamabad must mark the lowest point in Modi's dealings with neighbours, fixated as he is on the notion of Pakistan as a purveyor of global terror.

It would have been naive to expect anything else from a man who was chief minister of Gujarat for 12 years and used Pakistan as the ultimate metaphor for his communal prejudices.

The deterioration in the Delhi-Islamabad relationship, evident for months, erupted with virulence earlier this month when Modi chose to make his familiar charges about Pakistan's 'terrorist tendencies' in a third country.

Poor statesmanship alone could not have prompted the prime minister to make these old accusations in Bangladesh.

It was clearly another surge of triumphalism brought on by his near success in portraying the liberation of Bangladesh as the work of his party.

But that was not half as embarrassing as the testosterone levels unleashed in the wake of the Indian army's strike against Naga rebels in neighbouring Myanmar.

The embarrassing taunts and threats made by senior ministers of the Modi government to Pakistan and the resulting backfire has been a clear sign of immature diplomacy.

Inability to deal with the complexities of the China relationship has marked another foreign policy low.

Although much has been made of the shuttle diplomacy between the two countries and the economic gains of these visits for India, it is also clear the fundamentals of this equation have not changed. Modi did wrest deals worth US$22 billion (S$29 billion) for the setting up of solar energy parks and infrastructure projects by the Chinese.

But it pales in comparison with the US$46 billion the Chinese are pumping into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking western China with the Gwadar port in Balochistan.

That is the realpolitik of relations in the region that Modi appears not to want to deal with.

The more disquieting aspect of the proposed project is that it runs through disputed territory, which, according to a former national security adviser, marks "a new low point in Sino-Indian relations".

Modi may have managed to hit all the right notes in all the places that he visited but these according to foreign policy analysts are facile successes that hide the strategic void evident in dealing with a rapidly changing environment in Asia and the Middle East.

Selfies, as a sociologist explains, are ultimately about self-absorption and narcissism, typical of the times.

The danger is when it turns into an obsession.

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