View of Modi as India's Nixon bears merit

SECOND WIND: New Indian Prime Minister Modi and former United States president Nixon are bound by a common theme of rehabilitation, says the writer.


    May 28, 2014

    View of Modi as India's Nixon bears merit

    THERE are great expectations in China that Narendra Modi, the new Indian Prime Minister, will become "India's Nixon" by emulating former United States president Richard Nixon in making a diplomatic breakthrough with Beijing, taking India-China relations to a higher level.

    Mr Nixon owed a part of his successful China policy to Henry Kissinger, who served as his national security adviser and secretary of state. So closely did the two men cooperate in global affairs that historians refer to them as "Nixinger".

    If Mr Modi is to live up to Chinese expectations, he must find his Kissinger. Unlike Mr Nixon, whose personal strength lay in foreign affairs, Mr Modi has little experience in diplomacy.

    I argue that the characterisation of Mr Modi by Liu Zongyi, a leading Chinese political commentator, as "India's Nixon" is historically accurate, not only because Mr Nixon normalised relations with China (and Mr Modi desires a much closer alliance with Beijing), but also because both leaders' public image had suffered great damage, and eventually both were politically rehabilitated, taking their reputations to dizzying heights.

    President Nixon's landmark restoration of diplomatic relations with China at the height of the Cold War in 1972 was hailed globally at the time. In later years, his China diplomacy received even greater accolades as a foreign relations masterstroke, and his sullied reputation stands restored.

    On the basis of historical evidence, I argue that Mr Nixon and Mr Modi are bound by a common theme of rehabilitation. Mr Nixon's presidential legacy was widely believed to be permanently damaged following the Watergate scandal which led to his resignation in 1974. But, by 1984, the buzzword was "rehabilitation".

    Even earlier, in 1952, when Mr Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower's running mate in the presidential election, the former faced charges that he was supported by a secret fund contributed by wealthy oil and real-estate interests. It appeared that his career in politics was over.

    Mr Nixon fought back with a powerful television campaign in defence of his honour, so much so that thousands of viewers wrote him letters of support.

    Mr Eisenhower stuck with Mr Nixon, and when the former won the election, the latter was transformed from shady senator to a vice-president with a flair for foreign relations.

    Mr Nixon rebuilt his public image by making himself acceptable to rank-and-file Republicans. In 1968, he was elected US president by a slender margin. Four years later, he was re-elected by an overwhelming majority.

    However, just two years later, he resigned as president following charges of obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

    Mr Modi, like Mr Nixon, suffers an image dysfunction owing to the Gujarat riots which resulted in the deaths of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus in 2002.

    He was accused of initiating and condoning the violence, along with police and government officials. In 2012, he was cleared of complicity in the violence by investigators appointed by the Supreme Court of India.

    Like Mr Nixon, Mr Modi has been assiduous in rebuilding his image, using an elaborate campaign office and a media advertising blitz that projected him as a decisive leader that will put the country back on track to rapid economic growth.

    He has succeeded in winning an absolute majority in Parliament for his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, as a result of persuasive public speeches and a campaign promise of delivering rapid economic growth that appealed to voters much more than the lacklustre campaign of the Congress Party.

    Unlike Mr Nixon, however, Mr Modi lacks experience in foreign affairs. Mr Nixon wrote 12 books on foreign relations, such as Six Crises and No More Vietnams.

    Mr Modi has not written anything on foreign relations, but he can compensate by being an active practitioner of Indian foreign policy. Already, the Chinese are looking forward to engaging him as a friend of China.

    China has figured prominently in Mr Modi's development strategy. He visited the country three times during his tenure as Gujarat chief minister, and travelled to Singapore and Japan as well.

    His Gujarat government has signed a 400 million rupee (S$8.5 million) contract with a Chinese firm to establish a plant manufacturing high-voltage transformers and reactors in his Gujarat state.

    The Chinese believe that they can do better business with Mr Modi because the former Congress government was slow to react to their proposals.

    Mr Modi seems determined to make a global impact, and he has already had personal telephone conversations with US President Barack Obama and other world leaders. He has told several foreign heads of government of his desire to deepen India's strategic relationship with them.

    He is already sounding Nixonian.


    The writer, a former Business Times senior correspondent, is a historian who has written books on Indochina. This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared in The Business Times.