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When I was in Bali a couple of years ago, I took part in white-water rafting. The man directing our raft was Balinese and when he found out that I was Indian, he broke into a huge smile. “Kajol!” he exclaimed, “I know that you are Kajol! I have seen you on television! Kuch Kuch hota hain!” Of course, he could have been saying this to every Indian woman who he met in Bali. But I’d like to imagine that I was special. He called me Kajol for the next couple of hours and he insisted that I explain the plot of his favourite Bollywood movie to anyone unfamiliar with it. And considering the length of the movie, this was no mean feat.
I’d heard the value of Indian soft power touted by Indophiles and nationalists but this was my first experience of its reception. People tried to sell me images of Hindu gods and goddesses on the streets. When I ‘claimed’ them as Indian Gods, there was a slight bristling at my words which served to remind me of the arrogance of Indian superiority. But what surprised me the most was one Indonesian friend who was excited about the cast of the 2013 television serial, Mahabharata visiting Jakarta. I professed not having seen a single episode as I had grown up with the 1988 series. He was aghast but this did not dampen his excitement: apparently the actors were quite cute. I made a mental note to watch the series but never acted on it.
All of this comes to mind this week when the ten heads of the Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN) states visited India. The papers were filled with little but details of the preparation for Republic Day, which floats and which daredevil stunts were to be displayed. There was also a lot to sift through about relations between India and South-East Asia.
A good start on all the reading about ASEAN is this Wire piece on the gap in understanding between ASEAN and India. There are many suggestions with respect to what Indian foreign policy can do with regards to the ASEAN. One common thread was to extend India’s conception of the neighbourhood to a larger one. Raja Mohan called for more security cooperation, Harsh V Pant said that India and ASEAN have to focus on operationalizing their ambitious plans, while others called for mutual recognition agreements and frank and substantive dialogue.
Of course, one cannot discuss South-East Asia without mentioning China in the next breath. Both India and ASEAN seek to engage and hedge with China in the region and some analysts called this a mature move on part of India. With the rise of the One Belt, One Road projects, analysts also stress on connectivity as a pillar between India and South-East Asian countries. As the North-East is projected to be the gateway to South East Asia, Rudroneel Ghosh pointed out how culturally as well, the states on the eastern borders have much to offer in terms of soft power. The Prime Minister of Singapore wrote an editorial on how India and ASEAN could deepen ties as Singapore takes over the ASEAN chairmanship.
We cannot let ASEAN dominate all the news. The French and German Ambassadors to India penned an editorial on how the importance of India to the European Union would not change despite Brexit. This comes against the backdrop of the second big foreign policy story this week: Prime Minister Modi’s speech at the World Economic Forum. Davos was not the place for business deals, perhaps but this didn’t stopped Prime Minister Modi and his team from pulling all stops. Indeed, analysts have branded his speech as ‘an ode to capitalism’ and ‘a bright spot among the grey skies’. Modi was upto meeting and encouraging foreign investment but analysts went as far as to wonder why he wasn’t extending his overtures to Indian businessmen.
Meanwhile the International Monetary Fund projected that the Indian economy would be the fastest growing economy in the world for the years 2018 and 2019. While this indicates a missed opportunity, the new budget next week may have some clues as to the direction of the economy.
In the US Congress, Rand Paul introduced a legislation to cut down US aid to Pakistan. Happymon Jacob counseled India to keep its distance from the recent American-Pakistan fallout over terror networks. Anand K Sahay recommended that India depend only on itself as the US and China vie for Pakistan’s favour. This could change the very nature of US-India defence as well as overall bilateral relationship. Meanwhile, Vivek Wadhwa pointed out that Trump’s immigration policies are shortsighted but will prove to be beneficial to the Indian economy. Indeed, as Anirudh Bhattacharyya pointed out, India has not been adversely affected by the ‘Trump-phobia’ that seems to have taken over the rest of the world.
The Prime Minister had a very successful week from Davos to Delhi but even more successful were his television interviews filled with leading questions. It’s been a productive week for Indian foreign policy and a tiring one for the poor analysts. But now, the last, enjoyable long-weekend of the winter is upon us and everyone seems to have fled the cities for the spring capital: The Jaipur Lit Fest. It’s the best time to sit at home, ponder the vagaries of life and catch up with a good book.