Modi-fying India

Modi-fying India

What does India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi have in store for the world?



What does India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi have in store for the world?

Is he the man to supply statesmanship and solve key international problems in Asia and beyond? Is his stewardship of India going to propel this vast land with an impoverished population to finally realise its true potential? Is he going to launch India to the next level in terms of economic prosperity and foreign influence to become an equal of China?


The aura around Mr Modi has raised expectations to a fever pitch not just among India’s billion plus people but in the wider international community.

Foreign well-wishers of India have long despaired that the country fails to live up to its billing as the next big thing in global leadership. A recent book by expatriate journalist John Elliott, Implosion, charges that underachieving India constantly disappoints admirers and validates the views of critics.

Likewise, former Canadian diplomat David Malone’s book, Does the Elephant Dance?, pillories Indian foreign policymaking for lack of a grand strategy, a long-term vision, and human and material capabilities to surge ahead. These lacunae aptly summarise the challenges for Mr Modi as he embarks on a journey of “scripting a glorious future for India”.

At his inauguration speech as Prime Minister, Mr Modi promised to “actively engage with the global community to strengthen the cause of world peace and development”. He walked this talk from day one in India’s highest office by ensuring that heads of government of all South Asian neighbours of India (except Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina, who was touring Japan) were present at his swearing-in ceremony. It was an unprecedented diplomatic coup and an early indicator that the current government in New Delhi will not let foreign policy languish in the glacial routines of unimaginative bureaucracy.


When he was Chief Minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, Mr Modi had been a magnetic politician for leaders and corporations in East Asia, the Middle East and Latin America owing to his aggressive promotion of trade and foreign direct investment with them. But within South Asia, India’s total trade with neighbouring countries is a paltry US$17.5 billion (S$22 billion).

To put this in perspective, intra-Association of Southeast Asian Nations trade is a whopping US$600 billion and growing. Of the US$17.5 billion being traded among eight member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), India exports US$15 billion and imports only US$2.5 billion.

As the largest economy of South Asia, India has not been able to enlarge opportunities and offer its smaller neighbours a concrete material stake to take home from the Indian market. This is despite SAARC signing an ambitious South Asian Free Trade Agreement in 2004. Mr Modi, famed for economic instincts, is the man who can turn this dismal picture around.

The sense of anticipation about overriding political barriers and maximising mutual economic gains, with Mr Modi as a key galvanising pillar, was captured in a tweet by Maryam, the daughter of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif: “Why can’t they (India and Pakistan) live like United Europe. Economic bloc perhaps?”

The Financial Express has reported that Mr Modi’s foreign policy team is fine-tuning “game-changing proposals” for freer movement of goods, capital and people to accelerate economic integration of South Asia.

The Prime Minister’s mercantile charms also fulfil a strategic imperative for India to recover lost ground in its own neighbourhood, where China has made determined inroads.

If Delhi is able to allay the misgivings of its smaller next-door nations by consciously giving them market access and technology transfers, it can break out of the insecurity stemming from Chinese encirclement schemes such as the dreaded String of Pearls.

India’s Achilles heel lies in South Asia and this weakness can best be overturned through a heavy dose of Mr Modi’s commercial diplomacy.


Although the United States and Western European countries had earlier treated Mr Modi as a pariah by blaming him for anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, they too are looking at India with renewed optimism because of his promised “red carpet” for investors.

India has been a constant feature on the US’ Special 301 list of priority watch countries where protection for intellectual property rights is weak. Mr Modi’s pro-business policies could bring around Western chambers of commerce to once again courting India as a promising emerging market.

While unleashing a hunger for the country to engage with the global economy, Mr Modi has to tread carefully in cases where business contradicts national security.

For instance, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, he wooed the Chinese technology giant Huawei to set up a research centre in his state. But the same Huawei has been under the scanner of Indian and other foreign intelligence agencies for spying and hacking into sensitive government networks.

Even the broader South Asian brotherhood he is chasing through economic regionalism can be jeopardised by anti-India Islamist terrorism.

With the Americans drawing down in Afghanistan, can Mr Sharif guarantee Mr Modi no resurgence of jihadist infiltration into India? Or will the thousands of hardcore Islamists who have tied down the US in Afghanistan move back eastwards to wreak havoc in Indian-controlled Kashmir?

Mr Modi has some alacritous “operations” specialists such as Mr Ajit Doval, his National Security Adviser, who would be preparing for such worst-case scenarios. One misnomer doing the rounds in assessments of the Prime Minister’s foreign policy outlook is that he is essentially a seasoned business salesman of India abroad and lacks a geopolitical gene. But Mr Modi is a nationalist with a trademark India First doctrine.

He dreams of India as a power centre in world politics and is certain to undertake long-due modernisation of the military and critical infrastructure. Sceptics alleging that realpolitik is beyond Mr Modi’s ken could be surprised by strategic breakthroughs in the coming five years.


Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and Dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India.


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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