Narendra Modi has been roaming the planet and has proven to have a real gift for international showmanship. But one part of the world that has, so far, been missing from his itinerary has been Europe.
Joao Cravinho, the European Union ambassador, held a press briefing this week and underlined the degree of neglect Brussels has experienced from the new Modi government.
The India-European Union free trade agreement, almost 95 per cent done, is awaiting the last mile of negotiations. Three quarters of a year in office, however, the new Indian government has not held a single meeting with the EU about whether they want to animate or bury the talks. Cravinho said he hoped that the EU would get word sometime in the next few weeks about what New Delhi wanted to do.
Somewhat strange given that, as he noted, the EU remains India’s single largest source of foreign investment, single largest trade partner and probably largest recipient of outward Indian foreign investment. Mind you, New Delhi had some reason to delay as the entire Brussels leadership was recently changed. Modi did meet the outgoing President of the European Council, Herman von Rompuy, at the G-20 summit long enough to master the pronunciation of each other’s names.
Of course, if you subtract the United Kingdom from this equation, the number for the rest of Europe plummets. Take out Germany as well and it is just a few billions here and there.
The lack of Indian engagement on climate change, the Holy Grail of European diplomacy, with Brussels is telling as well. Japan and the United States figure more in India’s climate change policy than Europe does. On Ukraine the two sides don’t even waste time talking to each other. Cravinho did say India could tell Russia that it was doing bad things in Ukraine, but it was for form’s sake.
One measure of the importance that Europe in the Modi worldview is the Indian foreign ministry’s recent 116-page e-book on the new government’s foreign policy, “Breakthrough Diplomacy”
which gives all of two pages to Europe as a whole (with Minister of State V.K. Singh’s visit to Slovenia as one of the high points), plus two pages each to the UK and Germany. The Indian diaspora gets 12 pages and Africa, which Modi has also yet to visit, 14 pages in comparison.
Of course this will change to some extent. Modi will go to Germany and probably France in April. The UK will get a place on the itinerary in the later half of this year.
Cravinho was also certain that the Indo-EU summit would also be held sometime this year. Hopefully.
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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had hoped to go to China next week with a new visa regime that would have at least given businessmen, workers and academics an easier time travelling back and forth. It won’t happen this trip as the cabinet reportedly didn’t have time to clear it.
But it says something about the difficulties of India’s visa regime in general that this should go all the way to the cabinet for clearance. It also says something that India is so reluctant to provide Chinese visas despite the Middle Kingdom being the country’s largest trading partner and generally a big wheel around the world.
I would estimate about a third of the correspondence I receive from people is about visa problems. Much of it from Indians complaining about other countries. But a fair share about foreigners trying to get Indian visas.
The Indian system, especially the home ministry, don’t get visas. They are treated as the paper equivalent of minefields and watchtowers. Actually, they do little more than provide basic statistical evidence about movements in and out of the country – and movements by middle class people who function inside the law and travel by regular means of transport.
An Israeli study actually concluded that visas provide zero additional security to a country – which is why this security-conscious people began allowing visas on arrival.
India’s visa policy, as senior Indian foreign policy officials admit, is a product of knee jerk responses to crises and embarrassments: terrorist attacks like Mumbai 26/11, illegal migrant scares and so on. Barriers are raised and layers of bureaucratic requirements are made like the birth certificates of your parents or that you have to put a two month interval in between visits to India (I have yet to work out why that helps prevent anything).
Then a backlash sets in, criticism builds up and the system then carves out exceptions to the rules to satisfy various groups or people. India also has a remarkable multiplicity of visas. And, as this oldish blog noted, it also has ever-changing visa regulations:
“The whole policy is filled with exemptions for old people, then women with children, and so on,” said an official. The result is an incoherent policy that resembles a piece of Swiss cheese, filled with holes.
Also, within a month, everyone works out ways to get around these barriers. Foreigners, faced with the two month idling period, often jet into Kathmandu and then travel by road into India. As the Indo-Nepalese border is little more than a string with tin cans hanging from it, they pass right through.
The costs to India in economic terms are high. India gets a pittance of foreign tourists for its size and will continue to do so as long getting a visa is so cumbersome. It costs India, as well, in terms of goodwill in foreign countries. And it makes India’s upper and middle classes look hypocritical given how much they raise a hue and cry whenever a Western nation puts up the slightest obstacle to their getting a visa for their children. Note the continuing furore over the UK demanding a money bond for some Indian travellers. This would actually facilitate Indians travelling to the UK, but just the idea has triggered protests by most Indians.
Being an attractive place to visit, a non-complicated place in terms of getting in and out, and otherwise seeming to be friendly and efficient would massively improve India’s image and create jobs. It would also be a huge multiplier in terms of “soft power” besides being more in line with India’s democratic polity.
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