The contrasts could not be starker. One day India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is in the dustbowl of Uttar Pradesh, one of the country’s largest and poorest electoral battlegrounds, meeting salt-of-the-earth voters. Just days later he’s shaking hands with suited international leaders in the world’s glitzy capitals of the world, giving his signature bear hug indiscriminately to the leaders of thriving democracies as well as those with more autocratic tendencies.
Modi, who leads the world’s most populous democracy but is often lumped in with the nationalists and populist strongmen, has met and greeted some 24 prime ministers and presidents since the easing of pandemic restrictions has allowed it. Just this week he met Vladimir Putin (pictured, on left, with Modi), the leader of India’s old ally and its major arms supplier, to discuss terrorism and security in the region. A few days later he’s one of 100 leaders attending Joe Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy, which concludes today.
Critics might brand all this gladhanding as a promiscuous form of diplomacy but Modi’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, prefers the term “plurilateralism”, as he explained in a recent book. “It is time to engage America, manage China, cultivate Europe, reassure Russia, bring Japan into play, draw neighbours in, extend the neighbourhood and expand traditional constituencies of support,” he wrote in The Indian Way.
And it’s no wonder. After last year’s clashes with China on its northern border and Afghanistan’s growing insecurity – never mind its ever-challenging relationship with Pakistan – India feels that it needs to be on a global charm offensive abroad to protect it from needing to defend its behaviour on its own doorstep.