Less than two months ago, a journalist published a startling and seemingly incredulous report. It compared foreign visits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessor, Dr Manmohan Singh, and posed an elementary question: Who has travelled the most, outside India?
Anyone conducting a quick straw poll with this question is likely to discover that almost eight or nine times out of ten, if not a perfect score, the nod will be in favour of Modi.
The reply of most people, that Modi has travelled far more than Singh, would be based on perception. In politics, personal impression or assessment is what matters. But, lo, the reply, it would be said in the dramatic style of Big B in KBC, this is the galat jawab or the "wrong answer.”
Spree of Foreign Visits: An Indian PM Trademark?
The cut-off date for comparing the data of foreign visits of the two premiers was 15 July, the day Modi returned from France, where he paradoxically was the guest of honour on Bastille Day and the United Arab Emirates.
Since then, Modi has been on two more visits – to South Africa and Greece between 22-25 August and later on 6-7 September to Indonesia for the ASEAN-India meet and East Asia Summit.
After adding these six days to the data published by the journalist, the comparison between Modi and Singh’s foreign visits is as follows: Of the ten years in office, Singh spent a total of 313 days abroad while Modi has so far been out of India for 279 days.
To overhaul his predecessor, Modi will have to be out for 34 days and he has approximately 240 days in office – which means that he has to be away from the country at least once every seven days.
Modi's 'Public Relations' Skills Globally
Significantly, a number of Modi’s visits were to countries where no Indian Prime Minister had ever visited or had not visited that nation for several decades. Besides these record-making dashes to countries as varied as Mongolia, Palestine, Rwanda, Fiji, Seychelles, Mozambique, and Sweden, Modi also scored over his predecessor, by the high blitz publicity and the public showmanship that accompanied every visit.
Another very important feature of Modi’s tours outside India was the mandatory event in almost every country with the Indian diaspora. Starting with his first visit to the United States in September 2014 to his latest engagement with the Indians in Greece, at every halt, Modi always spared time for the Indian diaspora and addressed them on each occasion.
Modi’s address to thousands of American Indians in Madison Square Garden in September 2014 was undoubtedly an 'event’.
The overwhelming support for him, resembling the fan following of a rockstar, was a subliminal snub to the American establishment.
But this visit and the MSG event became the template for all subsequent visits, including the latest one to Greece where too a tiny Indian community made their presence felt and were duly reported by the Indian media.
That was when it also became evident that Modi would showcase the reception outside India to the domestic constituency and likewise, he would ensure his electoral support and emphatic parliamentary majority was projected adequately to ensure that the foreign government treated him with the respect a representative of 1.4 billion people deserved.
The message was clear, his past as the chief minister of Gujarat during the 2002 riots was not to be raked.
G20 Meets Conducted in Indian Cities and Towns
When India assumed the G20 presidency after twice swapping the chair, first with Italy in 2021 and then with Indonesia in 2022, it was clear that this would be used by Modi as a virtual launch pad for his re-election bid in 2024.
The Indian government has innovatively used its presidency to convey that it believes in the decentralisation of conference venues and was not Delhi-centric only.
By the end of November this year, when India’s presidency will end, the country will have hosted over 220 meetings across 60 cities in all 28 States and 8 Union Territories. When this plan was announced last year, inquiries revealed that the idea had "come from the top”.
It is likely that Modi or his closest advisers would have opined that decentralising the G20 meeting venues would generate confidence among Indians living in tier II and tier III cities that their cities were worthy of playing host to a major diplomatic event.
These G20 delegate meetings also provided an opportunity for people to showcase local culture and underscore the wide diversity of the country to delegates attending these meetings.
For politicians, particularly Modi, no activity is of interest unless it is politically and electorally beneficial. So the moot question is whether India’s G20 Presidency was truly converted into a "people’s festival” or a Summit.
Publicity Hypes Up India’s Presidency, but Who Gains?
The entire events have also been used to publicise Modi’s image and further the cult around him. This has been done by wall-to-wall publicity campaigns with what a foreign newspaper termed “barnstorming flair”.
Innumerable cities and towns across India and thousands of kilometers of roads and highways have been plastered with either Modi’s image or the G20 logo. Monuments have been lit up and people were asked to put up selfies on social media with the logo of G20 – to provide a sense of participation like the Sangh Parivar has always with its programme like Ram Shila Yatra in 1989.
The effort is to convey what The New York Times wrote, “India had been personally anointed by its peers, rather than merely being next up in the hosting rotation.”
The line refers to the fact that hosting the Summit is actually no real 'achievement’ because it was due to be held in India in any case because of the rotational system of the group’s presidency.
But this has at least benefited the BJP, at least among the vocal middle classes.
How G20 Moves the Needle for Modi’s Popularity
International conferences and events have been often harnessed by governments to boost their and the leader’s public image. Indira Gandhi did this famously in 1983 with India hosting the Non-Aligned Movement’s Summit in March and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November.
But while it was initially viewed positively by the people, this did not convert to electoral support for the then-prime minister because she was unable to resolve the conflict in Punjab.
According to a popular survey, a big majority (68%) were of the view that India’s global influence is getting stronger. Obviously, the kudos for their opinion will go to Modi. The survey report also states that 79% of Indians have a favorable view of Modi, including 55% who hold a "very favorable” view.
These findings are, however, not broken either demographically or regionally. Furthermore, the political unsure-footedness currently on display from the BJP over either the country name or the Special Session of the Parliament does not evoke much confidence in the survey findings.
Modi cannot also ignore that globally, although 46% of adults hold a favorable view of India, but a fairly high median of 34% has unfavorable views about him. Additionally, while nearly 37% of people reposed confidence in Modi, almost 40% say they lack trust in him.
As expected, “Indians are more likely than others to believe India’s power is on the rise. Around seven-in-ten Indians believe their country has recently become more influential“. In contrast, only 28% respondents across 19 countries feel the same way.
These people held the same view last year which means that for them, India’s stature has not increased over its G20 presidency term.
It is probably due to this, Modi is unwilling to rest on his laurels and continues looking for a trump card or a Brahmastra for the next round of parliamentary (and maybe more) elections.
(The writer’s latest book is 'The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India'. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)