Indian PM Narendra Modi is the world's most effective and captivating leader. In the absence of Japan's Abe and the US's Trump, India's climb to global influence has begun from Asia.
India is ready and eager to not only command a place at the high table but lead the world be it in the immediate
neighborhood, Asia or the world at large. This bold and new face of the country's leadership was aptly demonstrated twice in this last week at the ASEAN and the East Asian Summits that were held on the back of one another.
In his address at the 17th ASEAN Summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi underscored the importance of promoting rules-based order in the region that includes the adherence to international law and though he did not mention China directly, the reference was obvious. Like India, many ASEAN members have territorial disputes with China and it was a topic that was part of the discussions.
“From the beginning, ASEAN has been a focal point of our Act East policy. There are a lot of similarities between our Indo-Pacific ocean's initiative and ASEAN's outlook on Indo Pacific,” Modi said in his opening remarks. “We believe a cohesive and responsive ASEAN is imperative for security and growth of all in the region.” A day later India's foreign affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar was more direct in his remarks at the East Asian Summit where he spoke of the importance of adhering to international law, respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty and promoting a rules-based global order. The attack on China was not that veiled either as on the issue of disputes in the South China Sea, concerns were expressed on actions and incidents that erode trust in the region.
“Code of Conduct negotiations should not be prejudicial to legitimate interests of third parties and should be fully consistent with UNCLOS,” he said.
It marks a departure from the past where India would stand its ground but not be boisterous about its principles. More surer of itself and its strengths, it represents a leadership that is willing to extrapolate its policies on a world stage in much clearer terms.
It was also in evidence last year when India walked away from RCEP. Back then, many believed India was isolating itself especially in South East Asia and it would only draw countries closer to China. Instead, in the aftermath of the pandemic that has spared none but brought with it a completely new dynamic to global diplomacy, it has only strengthened India's hand. In a highly fluid and uncertain environment, the world is looking for new leaders. Trump in the US and Abe in Japan are gone and while that doesn′t necessarily mean a vacuum of sorts--the likes of Angela Merkel of Germany, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Vladimir Putin in Russia are still very much around, but the time is ripe for a new leader preferably from one of the developing economies to step up and lead the way. Prime Minister Modi in India is one of the prime candidates.
In his second term, his popularity at home remains at stratospheric highs, which ensures a consistency in leadership that no other leader from a working democracy can guarantee. Recent successes in state elections and bypolls testify to the fact that people are satisfied with Modi's handling of the Covid crisis and long term reform push in the domestic economy.
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Further, in at least two areas of critical importance, Modi has already displayed tremendous leadership and statesmanship on a global scale. In the case of climate change, Modi has been one of the most prominent advocates of the need to reverse it as India was one of the earliest signatories to the Paris Agreement committing to convert 40 percent of its source of energy to renewables and a 33 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
More recently, India has led the fight against the spread of the virus and earned goodwill by working overtime and providing medical assistance to countries. As the pharmacy of the world, India exported record quantity of anti-viral drugs especially hydroxychloroquine tablets to over 150 countries since April and after initially struggling with PPE kits, it quickly ramped up domestic production to export them in large numbers as well from July. With the race for a vaccine entering its last stages, India would also help the world become immune to the virus in 2021 and beyond.
India's long standing support for multilateralism and rules based engagement also gives it an edge in the leadership board as compared to others like China. A big proponent of the emergence of a multipolar world theory, Dr Jaishankar has been very forthright with his views on every fora. “There has been a rebalancing in the world and in Asia too. What applies to the world also applies to Asia,” he said at a virtual event on India-Japan relations in September. “A multipolar world must have its foundation in a multipolar Asia.” The aspirations are clear and the targets have been set, India under Modi is gearing up to seize its moment under the spotlight.