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Dev Nadkarni

By the time this edition goes online and hits the stands, Narendra Modi would have taken oath as Prime Minister of India for the second time in a row.

Winning Election 2019 with a margin and vote share bigger than his first election in 2014 has proved that India’s voters have endorsed the policies and performance of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition that it leads.

Voters have given BJP the mandate to lead the country by way of a clear majority to form a government on its own, without having to rely on its NDA partners. The opposition has been left in tatters with no single party having been able to cobble together the minimum number of seats to lay claim to the mantle of Leader of the Opposition.

While a weak opposition is never in the interest of a good functioning democracy, Mr Modi has emphasised in his post-result address that his government will be inclusive and take everyone forward together, including members of the opposition – in line with the NDA’s “Sabka ka saath, sabka vikaas” (“working together for everyone’s progress”) credo.

As a leader with the democratic world’s biggest mandate, Mr Modi – and of course the country that he leads – has the Mana and the geopolitical heft to take that credo beyond India’s political borders.

His strong showing in the election would have undoubtedly bolstered his image on the world stage and India will emerge a much stronger player in the geopolitical space than ever before. Most world leaders have alluded to this in their congratulatory messages to Mr Modi, saying that they are looking forward to working with his new government.

Stronger geopolitical partnership

Mr Modi’s ‘Look East’ policy – a geopolitical strategy to strengthen ties with the economic powerhouses of Southeast Asia and the vast Oceania region including New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands region – will receive a fillip in his second government.

United States President Donald Trump has long acknowledged India as an important partner in forging the Indo-Pacific alliance along with some Pacific Rim states and Australia and New Zealand to form a strong counter China’s increased presence and activities around the region.

One of the first public statements that newly elected Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made was about working toward correcting what the western world and its allies increasingly perceive as the geopolitical imbalance in the greater Pacific region.

Two powerful freshly mandated leaders in the Indo-Pacific alliance is bound to see some bold new initiatives in the Pacific geopolitical space over the next 12-18 months as the United States moves toward its own election next year.

The first Modi government has worked hard to strengthen ties with the Pacific Islands region as a bloc and even bilaterally with several island nations – notably Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and Niue. India has already hosted all the Pacific Islands Forum country leaders at summits in India after Mr Modi’s meeting with them collectively when he visited Fiji in his first term.

Following that visit, India has set up several training initiatives for Pacific government officials in taxation, customs, financial planning and other areas. Pacific officials have been visiting India for training and Indian trainers have been using Fiji as a hub for training officials from neighbouring Pacific countries.

Unfortunately, New Zealand missed out on hosting Mr Modi during that visit which included Australia along with Fiji but this country could well look forward to a visit sometime over the next few years of his stewardship of India. It might happen when the new Indian High Commission complex in Wellington is completed.

Though former Prime Minister Sir John Key led a delegation to India and met with Mr Modi, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has only met him on a couple of occasions on the margins of international summits. It is not publicly known as yet when the first official meeting between the two leaders will happen but sources indicate that it might in the first half of next year.

Trade will see boost

Bilateral trade in both goods and services between India and the larger Pacific region, especially New Zealand, could be much bigger than it currently is. New Zealand and India have unsuccessfully pursued a Free Trade Agreement for a number of years and now both pin their hopes on the Regional Closer Economic Partnership (RCEP) deal for boosting trade.

New Zealand-India negotiations on RCEP have slowed over the past year or so, given understandable distractions on the Indian side in the run up to the elections and are expected to pick up in the coming months. RCEP also involves Australia and the ASEAN states that includes a whopping one-third of the global GDP.

With Fonterra poised to re-enter India shortly, New Zealand’s presence will take a larger chunk of India’s mindshare and its favourable image in Indians’ minds could serve well for other New Zealand products, services and investments to flow into India. Already more than 50 joint ventures between Indian and New Zealand companies exist and these will only grow as RCEP negotiations gather steam with India’s new dispensation in place.

The recent success of New Zealand companies that have set up plants in India to serve as manufacturing facilities not just for India but also for the global market will likely see other companies follow suit over the next few years.

First appeared in The Indian Weekender dated 31 May 2019.