Monday, December 6 2021 | ASIA TODAY INTERNATIONAL - Reporting the Business that Matters in Asia
MODI A DIPLOMATIC CHALLENGE FOR ASIA
INDIA’s new Prime Minister embraces paradox – a quiet, introverted writer of poetry, and a powerful and flamboyant political leader . . .
NARENDRA MODI the man just elected Prime Minister for 1.2 billion Indians, will be a major challenge for Asian and Australian diplomats and politicians – not just because he is an “outsider and loner” but because he will also seek to be close to both China and the USA.
Modi has gone from Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat to the highest office in the land without so much as setting a foot in the National Parliament building.
The fact that Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, once contemplated the religious life will give him a good personal connection with Modi, who wandered India on a spiritual quest as a young man — until politics intervened.
For all his reputation as a modern business-oriented politician, Modi is really a case of “something old, something new”. Here are 12 things leaders will need to know:
Modi is a clear case of the outsider breaking into the elite sanctum – starting life as the son of a tea seller (Chai Wallah), selling tea himself as a young man, and living even today pretty much as a loner.
As a young man, Modi wandered India — especially the Himalaya region — on a two-year spiritual quest.
He begins each day, like many Hindus, at around 5am, with yoga practice following an ancient “pranayama” breathing technique, then jumps onto the internet for global information.
Modi is a true combination of “something old, something new” — he studies ancient texts and loves multi-media high-technology presentations.
Adhering to ancient concepts of “service”, Modi never took a holiday in the 13 years from 2001 when he was elected Chief Minister of Gujarat. He kept his personal staff to as low as three, despite entitlement to a large entourage.
As Chief Minister of Gujarat State, he built a pro-business and “can do” reputation – supported by delivering 24/7 electricity (an unusual achievement in India).
One of his icons is Swami Vivekananda, who inspired him with this saying: “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.”
This last sentence has clearly worked for Modi, who has been his own man and makes many decisions alone.
He is a quiet, introverted writer of poetry and a powerful and outgoing political leader.
Although building the image of a modern corporate man, Modi has also turned to the old negotiating technique of holding several personal fasts as his own “Sadbhavna (Goodwill) Mission” reaching out to the Muslim community.
In a further paradox, he has been seen very much as a leader for doing business at home, but in his quest to create business in Gujarat he travelled extensively, especially to centres of capital such as China (many times), Japan and Singapore, showing he will reach out when capital and business support is vital.
On entering India’s Parliament after winning the election, Modi prostrated and kissed the carpet, much like a devotee on entering a temple. He said: “This is the temple of democracy”.
He fasts for nine days each year as part of his spiritual life.
India historically has found no problem in getting close to regimes that tend to divide the international community – they have maintained strong diplomatic and business ties with both Israel and Iran. Modi will seek to do this with China and the USA.
As Australia’s Prime Minister prepares to meet him later this year in India, like all visiting leaders wanting to impress Modi he would be wise to give him thoughtfully-chosen and symbolic gifts rather than lavishing expense. And, at all costs, Australian diplomats need to make sure they do not put on a traditional barbeque for the new leader, who is seriously vegetarian.
Modi embraces paradox.
At core, the “something old” about Modi is the fading image of a loud “Hindu nationalist”. The “something new” is the decisive, corporate-style leader.
Modi’s campaign for election was based on love of old-fashioned rural meetings — balanced by his vast use of Facebook (he had the fastest-growing follower numbers of anyone in the world, achieving over 14.5 million). Voters were so keen to post “selfies” as they voted that electoral commentators speculate social media caused a higher than normal turnout.
Big business should be getting over to New Delhi as fast as it can because opportunities will abound, especially in infrastructure, such as roads and coal. Roads will appeal to Modi because he can spread money across geographies, and create jobs for rural poor.
Modi was the single force behind the big business success of his home State, creating the “Vibrant Gujarat” campaign – so he knows how to reach out to business.
Now this man of many paradoxes is seen to inspire or reflect a new single view or mainstream form of nationalism in a country that was built more on the belief that “diversity is strength”.
In contrast to some poorly-defined view of the “new mainstream”, Modi is a living example of diversity and paradox in a country where beliefs can seem contradictory — the person you negotiate with can hold two opposing views at once, and even the Indian Supreme Court found it impossible to define Hinduism.
Winston Churchill once said India was no more a single country than the equator, and even under Modi (perhaps especially under Modi) there will continue to be many Indias, a country of countries, a nation that seems divided and is united, an amalgamation of cultures, where identifying a universal truth about India is a slippery slope to confusion.
For all this diversity, even considering tensions over violence against students and disagreements over uranium, Professor Amitabh Mattoo, Director of the Australian India Institute reminds us that no single issue divides Australia and India right now.
Whether lack of division can result in actual closeness could come down to how well Prime Minister Abbott performs culturally, and how much Australia understands the “old” and the “new” of this Indian leader.
In the end, only one thing is certain for Australia — and Asia — in the years ahead. If Modi succeeds economically for the whole of India as he did in one State, the growth will be very good news for Australian exporters.
* Stephen Manallack is a published author and cross-cultural trainer. He has led a number of trade missions to India, and is a regular speaker and trainer there. His new book is Soft Skills for a Flat World (Tata McGraw-Hill). Email firstname.lastname@example.org