It makes perfect sense for world leaders to call the winners of national elections in other countries to congratulate them. “Hey, I hear you're the person I'm going to be communicating with on behalf of my country, congratulations and hello, let's be friends!” is the general vibe, usually.
But a number of leaders, from US President Trump to French President Hollande, to Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau, to the leaders of Sweden, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all called our own PM Modi to congratulate him on his big win in UP – a state election. Now why would they do that?
The Quint spoke to experts – ex-diplomats and journalists – to find out what the deal is. One thing they all agreed on is that such a call is indeed very unusual, and that they couldn’t remember another time that national leaders had congratulated another national leader on a state election.
Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary of India, elaborated:
One doesn’t usually comment on state elections because these things are dynamic. While a national election is final, party victories can change from one state to another, so it is a risk to congratulate a win. To call and do so is to really send a very politically supportive message that ‘we rejoice in your success’.
Asked if India had ever called to congratulate a sitting president or prime minister over any similarly big mid-term victory, Sibal appeared to chuckle with a firm “Absolutely not.”
G Parthasarathy, ex-diplomat and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, when asked why Trump was reaching out to Modi in this unusual fashion, said:
Modi was one of the first people to call Trump on his victory. [...] Trump has tried to establish a personal rapport with Modi. Obviously, he has been told the relationship with India is looking upwards.
On being asked how unusual it is for a US President to call another world leader over a state election win, he quipped:
Presidents don’t go on precedence. Presidents set precedents.
So is this definitely a precedent being set then? “Yes.”
But it wasn't just Trump who called, it was a slew of world leaders. Isn't that odd? “In many of these circles, in Europe and in the US, Modi is regarded as a decisive leader. It’s also a manifestation of that.”
Is this, in his experience, the first time these other world leaders have called to congratulate about a state win? He replied:
In my experience, working with every PM from Nehru to Vajpayee, yes.
Although he qualified it by saying, “But I don’t consider that different in any way from the fact that every president has their own diplomatic style.”
Does this signal a new phenomenon, a kind of Modi effect? Parthasarathy demurred, “Well, let's see how it goes.”
And what does Salman Haider, former foreign secretary and foreign affairs minister, think? Asked if he can remember another time that a PM has been congratulated by world leaders for a state election, he says:
Frankly, I do not. But I don’t think that’s significant.
Seeing the call from Trump as “part of a evolving style of higher-level communication, in which both Modi and Trump are keen on putting their personal stamp on their relations,” he detects a larger pattern in international relations. One in which there is a “stronger personal element.” He goes on:
Foreign affairs has normally been a rather starchy, formalised process. [...] This loosening of style seems to be part of the way in which communication has internationally evolved.
Jyoti Malhotra, senior journalist, sees Trump’s call to Modi as mutually beneficial posturing since “they are of the same ilk”.
Modi gets to tell his critics that the world’s most powerful man is on his side, and Trump gets to tell his critics that the world’s largest democracy is with him. It’s a win-win.
When asked whether this would've been an initiative of the White House, she said, “I think there would have been prodding from the Indian lobby.”
Sibal too, when asked, appeared to indicate that an “activist Indian lobby might have signalled it [the call] may be a good idea, but at the end of the day, it would be Trump and his entourage who would have taken the decision” in accordance with their own interests.
And who would be the Indian lobby? Well, Leela Ponappa, former deputy national security advisor, too, thinks the lobby led by Shalabh Kumar probably played a part. “Politicians have an understanding amongst each other,” she said, continuing:
To comment on a state victory would depend on the size of the victory, and there’s no question Modi’s UP victory was big.
As for other world leaders calling to congratulate, she said, “I think they are showing respect for the mandate.”
Seema Sirohi, a Washington-based senior journalist, was of the opinion that the phone call from Trump, though very unusual, was a personal initiative on the part of the White House in service of a larger aim.
Steve Bannon, the big ideologue in the White House, sees Modi as part of this phenomenon, this worldview, that can help him take on Islamists and jihadi terrorism. They are looking for partners and see Modi as someone from the same side of the ideological spectrum.
So there you have it – according to experts in the field, calling to congratulate about a state election is extraordinary, but may be attributable to the size of Modi’s UP win, an evolving style of international communication, and/or the international perception of Modi as a particularly decisive leader.
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