Two back-to-back state visits from countries of significant international stature; two separate protocol approaches, media attention and domestic political focus. What does all this indicate of our current foreign policy priorities, national politics and media interests? I refer to the Argentinian President Mauricio Macri's tour of India on February 17-19 and the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) on February 19-20.
First, a brief clarification of diplomatic practice which will put the subject in context.A formal visit of a leader of one country to another is generally classified as working, official, or state. A working visit is generally short, business-like, and without any ceremony. In official visits, the focus is on productive meetings, and some ceremonial gestures, as a guard of honour, are thrown in. State-level visits have the highest diplomatic status. Apart from substantive meetings such visits have a well-established ceremonial protocol which each country prescribes and invariably follows. It is necessarily extended to the visiting foreign leader. India too has one which includes a welcome at the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhawan along with a tri-services guard of honour.
No foreign country ever accepts lower ceremonial protocol during a state visit. However, it is open to a host country to add special and effusive gestures for a specific foreign visitor. In India's case this could be the rare occasion of the Prime Minister receiving a guest at the airport, hosting a private meal at his residence or accompanying the guest to places within Delhi or outside. These gestures underscore that India attaches particular importance to the concerned bilateral relationship; they are also entirely acceptable in international diplomatic practice.
Argentina is an important South American country. It is a member of the G 20 and hosted the organisation's summit last year. Although India and Argentina are not on the same page on some international issues such as the expansion of the United Nations Security Council both countries have made serious efforts to comprehensively upgrade the relationship. The Modi-Macri Joint Statement also shows a mutual desire to impart substance in critical areas such as civil nuclear energy and defence.
Clearly, Argentina wants India to be active in the region. Its Foreign Minister Jorge Faurie told the Indian media, "India has to be absolutely active in Latin America". Indicating an unease with the concerted moves that China has made over the past two decades all across the South American continent to grab natural resources, Jorge added "the Chinese have been in the region for many years already, for almost twenty years." This reveals the high expectations from India that exist not only in Latin America but also in many parts of the world. Is India ready to take up this expected role?
While the government may have given a push to be more active in the South American region, it has made no special endeavour. This was reflected in the Macri visit where it followed the normal protocol for state visits. More disconcerting was the media's almost complete lack of interest in Macri. It is true that the country was preoccupied with the Pulwama attack and domestic electoral politics. Nevertheless, the real cause of media's approach is India's continuing limited vision. This would not have been lost on the Argentinians.
MBS's visit was in direct contrast. While Modi went beyond protocol requirements to give him a 'bear hug' reception at the airport, the media went into a frenzy. The latter was not on account of Saudi Arabia's economic significance to India or a critical assessment of India's growing importance as a security provider to the seas between the Malacca Straits and the waters that surround the Arabian Peninsula, but to see how would MBS balance Indian concerns on some of formulations contained in the Saudi-Pakistan Joint Statement; he had visited that country on February 17-18. Thus his every move and gesture was extensively noted.
In sharp contrast to the Argentinian President's visit, political parties commented on the welcome accorded to MBS. The Congress criticised Modi for exceeding protocol because of the references of India-Pakistan relations and on the need to refrain from politicisation of the designation of UN terrorists. Was the shadow of the coming elections responsible for all this?
There is no doubt that India's involvement in West Asia is substantial as are its interests in the region. Saudi Arabia occupies a critical place in West Asian affairs and Indian interests demand that the media, academia, business, and the strategic community pay it substantial attention. This should arise independently because of India's enduring interests not from the obsession in many quarters with the country's immediate western neighbourhood. Sadly, the latter is more the case.
This does not imply that India's strategic classes should ignore the interaction of India's immediate neighbours with the rest of the world but that this should not become the only or the sole refraction point of India's external relationships. The Modi-MBS Joint Statement does indicate a serious endeavour to expand relations in many economic sectors and also cooperate more meaningfully in the security area through setting up institutional mechanisms. This is encouraging for the future and should be noted by Indian foreign policy analysts.
In different ways Argentina and Saudi Arabia indicated the growing importance of India's importance in global affairs. This requires that Indian policy makers and non-state institutions make their world view compatible with the demands of this status and responsibility.