Narendra Modi’s effortless ability to connect with people and strike the memorable pose, in India or abroad, is remarkable. No wonder that his recent visit to Japan produced a series of interesting photographs. In some, the Indian PM is the drummer, in others a wind instrumentalist. In some, he is with small children at a local school, even pulling at the ears of one; in others, he mingles with the crowd at a Kyoto Buddhist temple like any other tourist.
But there is a notable absentee in this crucial tour, what with India-Japan ties dubbed by the establishment as a most important one. Union foreign minister Sushma Swaraj is nowhere to be seen, for she was made to cool her heels in New Delhi while Modi embarked on his tour of Japan.
Like at the BRICS Summit in Brazil, the decision not to take Sushma with him to Japan could well be part of the PM’s personalised style of functioning. Since assuming power in May, Modi has made it clear that it is he and not his foreign minister who will be the chief articulator of India’s foreign policy. This was evident from his seemingly spontaneous decision to call South Asian leaders for his inaugural ceremony in New Delhi to highlight the importance that he is going to accord to strengthening relations with India’s immediate neighbours.
One can, however, argue that Modi is only following the tradition of what most other premiers since Nehru have done--taken a special interest in foreign policy and more often than not, and being its chief articulator. But in the present context, there is a more important element to it—the political rivalry between the two leaders that has led to widespread speculation in diplomatic circles and the media on how long Sushma can actually continue in her cabinet post.
The two leaders share a testy relationship and it is well-known that Sushma not only opposed Modi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, but was one of the last within the BJP to acknowledge that its resounding victory in the parliamentary polls was mainly because of the pull of his image.
There was, therefore, speculation on how Modi would reward her when the BJP came to power. The fact that she earned not only a cabinet berth but that of the external affairs minister, and became part of the core group at the cabinet committee on security, surprised sceptics. Many attributed her inclusion to the strong pitch made on her behalf by the RSS. “Smriti Irani could be a Modi favourite with her makeover as an ideal ‘Bharatiya nari’, but Sushma is the original one, with the way she dresses and conducts herself in public,” says a political observer.
MEA officials working with Sushma praise her for her ability to learn fast and for competently engaging with foreign dignitaries. Though there are signs that she and the PM have been in regular touch on all foreign policy issues, her camp followers still fear the unceremonial worst. Or a situation where she will be forced to resign.
But under the prevailing political atmosphere, neither Modi nor Sushma can afford to rock the boat. Modi, because he is running short of competent people to fill up key cabinet posts, and Sushma because she is not sure what her political future will be if she provokes Modi and loses her post. Her decision to land up at the airport to welcome him back from Japan and the bonhomie between the two suggests only that. Is the camaraderie here to stay; the start of a beautiful working relationship? Anyone would give a billion yens for an answer.