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The new Big Brother
Unlike in the West where it has certain dark undertones, Big Brother is a term of respect in India. Elders, superiors, persons of prominence and those who command respect are often addressed as Big Brother. With his growing global stature, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is acquiring the image of one in many parts of the world. Over the past month and a bit, the Indian Prime Minister's diary has been full of international engagements. A quick visit to the UK for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and a tete-a-tete with his British counterpart Theresa May, a quick dash to Sweden and then two whistle stop visits to Wuhan in China and Sochi in Russia for informal summits with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. These come close on the heels of his meetings in New Delhi with French President Emmanuel Macron in March and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the previous months. In between, Modi found time to meet newly-elected Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli in Kathmandu without really breaking into a sweat. Many of these have been very high profile events accompanied with the typical hype and razzmatazz that have by now come to symbolise Modi but underlying the excitement that these meetings generate is a well thought out programme to make sense of the very complicated emerging world order and a plan to position India as one of its incipient poles. Foreign policy experts say not only has Modi developed a very personalised style of foreign policy that relies on his personal chemistry with world leaders for success, he has also displayed an uncanny knack of being able to size up his hosts/guests very quickly, thus, enabling him to build on friendships and bridge differences across the board. No wonder world leaders from Trump to Putin to Xi and from May to Macron to Merkel have all started according New Delhi the kind of appreciation and respect that India has seldom commanded on the world stage.
The solar alliance
Modi's most audacious move - one that clearly indicates his growing stature and acceptance on the world stage - is the move to stitch together the International Solar Alliance (ISA), a new grouping of 121 countries mainly lying between the Topic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricon, but open to others as well, to tap the potential of solar energy. The goal: Increase the use of solar energy and reduce the dependence on fossil fuels to control global warming and mitigate the impact of climate change. The ISA, a brainchild of Modi, which he first publicly enunciated during his speech at the Wembley Stadium (on his first visit to the UK as Indian Prime Minister), is a treaty-based inter-governmental organisation. It was formally launched at the India-Africa Summit in New Delhi ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in November 2015. A total of 121 countries have joined the alliance so far. It is no coincidence that the Modi government has set an ambitious target of setting up 100 GW of solar power generation capacity in the country by 2022 and of reducing its emission intensity by 33-35 per cent by 2030. India has also offered to raise the share of renewable energy capacity to 40 per cent of its total power generation capacity by 2030. The launch of this alliance, the first truly global multilateral agency promoted by an Asian country, sends a strong signal to the global community about India's serious intent on climate change and seals Modi's global leadership position in a manner never achieved before by any Indian leader. New Delhi has announced that it will provide 27 solar projects in 15 countries with assistance of $1.4 billion, clearly indicating that Modi's vision of using this India-promoted multilateral agency to cement the country's leadership position among developing nations.
The ISA is working on a $300-billion fund that will help mitigate the risks associated with payment defaults, foreign exchange risks and regime change in an effort to create a sustainable financing platform for solar energy projects around the world. So completely is the ISA associated with India that Sir Peter Cosgrave, Governor General of Australia, said: “ISA is being described as India's gift to the world to combat climate change.” Modi's initiative has allowed India to take the lead in the global fight against climate change and established Modi as a far thinking leader who acts on his bold vision, especially following US President Donald Trump's decision to pull his country out of the Paris accord on the issue. Emmanuel Macron, President of France, which has collaborated with India on making ISA a reality, took a dig at Trump, saying: “It was two years ago and it was just an idea that time. And we decided all together to act... Our solar mamas didn't wait for us. They started to act and to deliver concrete results. They didn't wait and they didn't stop because some countries decided to just leave the floor and leave the Paris Agreement. Because they decided it is good for them, their children, grandchildren-they decided to act and keep acting. That's why we are here in order to act very concretely,” Macron added. Besides France, the UK has also joined the ISA following India's decision to open its membership up to countries beyond the tropics. On Modi's recent visit to the UK, the May government signed ISA's framework agreement and expressed its commitment to the continued advocacy of ISA's aims and goals.
Outreach in Africa
A major reason for Modi commanding the respect of the world at large is the much needed dose of realism and mutual self-interest that he has introduced to the conduct of Indian diplomacy, making a clean break with the past practice of ideology dominating the discourse. Under Modi, India has reached out to Africa. The move is guided by Indian economic and strategic interests. Africa is an important market for Indian companies, it is a long term source of raw materials, metals, minerals, uranium and oil and deep defence and strategic ties with African nations on the Indian Ocean coastline is an important component of India's efforts to retain its sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific.
But unlike the West in the past and China more recently, Modi has taken pains to ensure that India's ties with Africa are “neither exploitative nor prescriptive”. At a summit of 54 African nations in New Delhi three years ago with the twin goals of diplomacy and deeper economic engagement, Modi said India's relationship with Africa “is driven by the aim of empowerment, capacity building, human resource development, access to the Indian market and support for Indian investments in Africa.” Under Modi, in line with his domestic political credo of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (Development for all), India's engagement with Africa has been qualitatively different from that continent's ties with the West or with China. Many analysts dub the Chinese presence there “exploitative” - because of its focus on extraction of natural resources to feed its domestic factories - and the western presence hypocritical and prescriptive - because of its insistence of prescribing western standards of accountability even as the West continues to do business with some of the most unrepresentative and venal regimes in the world. The success of this outreach has raised India's profile across the world and helped establish Modi as one of the most important and powerful leaders across the globe.
The Indo-Pacific and the Quad
The officially unacknowledged 800-pound gorilla at most big and middle power meetings is the growing assertiveness of a rising China. India's new foreign policy doctrine has cleverly exploited its status as the only big frontier state against the Middle Kingdom to raise India's diplomatic status and political profile in capitals around the world. A small result of this new recalibration of geo-strategic paradigm in the Asian region has seen the Asia Pacific region being renamed Indo-Pacific by the US and some of its allies. This change in nomenclature could presage a tectonic shift in the geo-political landscape of the world - and pave the way for the emergence of an “Asian Nato” leading roles for the US, India, Japan and Australia. The grouping, first proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007 as part of his vision for an “arc of democracy” from Japan to India, was earlier shelved following protests by China and then revived recently at a meeting of senior officials from the four nations on the sidelines of a regional summit in the Philippines. This is very much in line with Modi's Act East policy that increases the depth and intensity of India's engagement with the 10-member Asean bloc, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Though details of the Quad have not yet been thrashed out, its initial mandate of ensuring a “free and open” region, with “respect for international law”, and “the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific” has given Modi sufficient elbow room to jockey for greater diplomatic leverage vis-à-vis both the West as well as China, thus, positioning India, which the world had hitherto been treated with benign neglect, as one of the major players in the new emerging geo-political chessboard in Asia.
The Commonwealth question
Post-Brexit Britain is staring at hard options: It needs to cut mutually beneficial trade deals with the EU and with other large trading partners in order to retain its existing standing in the comity of nations.
India under Modi has emerged as one of the preferred partners with whom a large number of advocates want closer ties. And in a world that is increasingly careening towards isolationism, a global Britain and a globalised India are fast zeroing in on the 54-member Commonwealth as a platform for seamless global trade partnerships and strategic cooperation. But unlike in the past, this Commonwealth 2.0 will not be UK-led or London-centric. Instead, in keeping with today's more egalitarian global order, it will be multi-polar, with India as one of the major movers and shakers within it. We may have seen the first act of this new play unfold with Modi accepting the personal invitation of Commonwealth head Queen Elizabeth II to attend the Heads of Government Meeting in the UK last month and his discussions with British Prime Minister Theresa May and other British interlocutors on this issue. It is pertinent that Her Majesty's Government considered it imperative to take Modi along. Many neutral observers felt that getting Modi on board was sine qua non, given his global standing, for acceptance of the still incipient plan by other Commonwealth members, particularly the a African countries and those in the Indo-Pacific.
Despite nudging noticeably closer to the West on most geopolitical and economic issues, Modi has not turned his back on India's traditional relationship with Russia, nor has he let rising border tensions with China come in the way of a burgeoning economic relationship with India's northern neighbour. He has leveraged his good personal chemistry with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping to hold informal summits with them recently to sort out irritants and take ties forward. In the elaborate game of international diplomacy, these high profile one-on-one meetings also keep his friends and foes guessing about his next move and India's long-term intentions - an essential pre-requisite of a successful and pragmatic international policy.
Managing the neighbourhood
Even as his global gambits have hogged the headlines, Modi has assiduously wrested back some of the regional advantage that India had ceded to China - most notably in Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka - under the previous regime. He has done this through a mix of economic diplomacy and real politic but the end results have been gratifying.
More than a regional power
Modi's global gambits have given India a profile and made space for a role that goes far beyond the country's geographical location. The ISA, the African outreach and the Commonwealth gameplan - along with high and sustained long-term domestic economic expansion - could propel India into the Big Power league to which it has long aspired. Many people recognise that in Modi, India has a helmsman who has what it takes to walk the talk and drag the country to the full extent of its complete potential. That could be one reason why he is feted with so much fanfare by the political elite in capital cities around the world.