India's New Prime Minister Takes A Stand On Foreign Policy

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a conservative Hindu leader, defied expectations on his first day in office by holding a micro-summit with his country's principle rival, Muslim Pakistan.

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Now let's go to India where there was an election with more than one strong candidate. And the country's new prime minister, Narendra Modi, has surprised many people already. He held a summit of sorts with the leader of neighboring Pakistan on his first day in office. Those two nations of course have fought multiple wars over the years. After an election campaign that was largely focused on domestic issues, Modi's early statesmanship has marked him as a leader in aggressive foreign policy. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from New Delhi.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: India's unresolved historic issues with Pakistan are a source of potential war. And Narendra Modi's out-of-the-box gesture to invite Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week was seen as a master stroke. Analyst Siddharth Varadarajan says the Hindu nationalist Modi has done a somersault in his hard-line view of no talks with Pakistan without first seeing progress on the trial of the alleged masterminds behind the 2008 massacre in Mumbai.

SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN: For this person to then turn around and say, OK, hang on a minute, I'm going to give peace a chance, I'm going to give dialogue a chance, represents a great leap forward.

MCCARTHY: Varadarajan says the dilemma for Modi is that Pakistan is a divided house, where militants are battling the state. It renders Sharif's promise to Modi that Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used to attack India insufficient if well-meaning.

VARADARAJAN: So clearly Pakistan is not in a position to deliver on guarantees, even with the best of intentions.

MCCARTHY: But analysts say that Modi's conservative credentials at home provide him political cover to maneuver - much like Richard Nixon, the conservative American president, who was inoculated from criticism that he was weak when he opened up to China and forged a new era in U.S.-Sino relations. Modi and Sharif have already announced intentions to build economic linkages. In fact, Modi wants Indian diplomacy to help resurrect the Indian economy. Senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Bharat Karnad.

BHARAT KARNAD: So he wants to get India, I imagine, to a position now that China was in the 1980s. So investors would flock to the manufacturing sector, and then India can take off.

MCCARTHY: And for that, the new Indian Prime Minister is looking East, says the Hindustan Times foreign editor, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

PRAMIT PAL CHAUDHURI: He's looking at China, he's looking at Japan. Japan has a strategic interest in building us up. Even China has indicated that they want to invest $300 billion into Indian infrastructure.

MCCARTHY: Chinese leaders eager for access to India have been quick to spot Modi's rise, and giving him the red carpet treatment during his trips to Beijing when he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat. But Karnad says there are limits to how close Modi can get to Beijing.

KARNAD: Precisely because he has this vision of India as a country of consequence in Asia. And that, I think, is going to matter very much.

MCCARTHY: It will matter greatly in relations with Washington. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the U.S. is the Indian perception that Washington is interested primarily in a transactional relationship. Siddharth Varadarajan says the U.S. has pushed India to buy American defense systems, ease patents for U.S. Big Pharma and allowing U.S. corporate banks.

VARADARAJAN: As long as the U.S. remains wedded to pursuing these objectives, and measuring how much India's willing to accommodate these American demands, you will have a problem.

MCCARTHY: Then there are the bruised feelings over the U.S. denying Modi a visa to enter the United States in 2005. When he led the state of Gujarat, Modi was alleged to have stood by during Hindu-Muslim riots there in 2002 - an allegation no court has proven. Again, Bharat Karnad.

KARNAD: I'm not sure just how much it will impact his thinking, except that he is known to be a person who does not forget slights easily.

MCCARTHY: But the Obama administration is very eager to get U.S.-Indo relations back on track. Modi wants it understood that India will take its place as an equal partner. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi.

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