Modi’s Global Travel: A Critical Balance Sheet

By Sanjay Pulipaka

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India during a visit to South Korea in May 2015. KoreaNet's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India during a visit to South Korea in May 2015. KoreaNet’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.


During his first year in office, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi visited 18 countries. While his energetic international engagement received approbation, there is also criticism that Prime Minister Modi is neglecting domestic responsibilities and some critiqued his travel schedule by labeling him a Non-Resident Indian (NRI).

Is the Indian prime minister indulging in excessive international travel? The number countries visited by Prime Minister Modi is below the average visited by the leaders of the United Nations Security Council P-5 countries – the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, China, and France (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Countries Visited by the Leaders of P-5 countries, Germany, Japan, Brazil, South Africa and India.   

Graphic prepared by Sanjay Pulipaka based on media data.

Graphic prepared by Sanjay Pulipaka based on various media data and sources. Note for counting purposes, multiple visits to the same country only count as one country visited. The Indian financial year starts on April 1 and ends on March 31 of the following year. Modi took office on May 26, 2014.

During 2013-14 Financial Year (FY), UK prime minister David Cameron visited approximately 19 countries. Cameron conducted these visits in the face of the impending Scottish independence referendum. Chinese president Xi Jinping also visited 19 countries and president of France, François Hollande, visited some 27 countries in 2014. With visits to 18 countries, U.S. president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin are on par with Modi. However, the U.S. president and the Russian president have far more power resources in global politics at their disposal than an Indian prime minister.

Among the leaders of some ‘middle powers’, German chancellor, Angela Merkel, went to 22 countries during 2014 and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe visited 26 countries in 2014. In terms of rising powers, South African president Jacob Zuma traveled to 21 countries during 2013-14 FY. President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, clocked in approximately 16 countries in 2013 in spite of severe domestic political unrest. If her trips to Japan and the United States had proceeded as planned, her count would be 18 countries as well.

The data on countries visited by the leaders of United Nations P-5, Germany, Brazil and South Africa under-represents the total travel conducted, as they visited some countries more than once in a given year. In comparison, Modi’s international travel in his first year was not excessive and yet he received some sharp disapproval. What explains the criticism?

First, in the recent past, India has not seen the energetic international engagement that Modi has demonstrated. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh visited ten countries during the 2013-14 FY. Therefore, for many Indians, Modi’s relatively intense travel itinerary appears unusual, amusing or unwarranted depending on their political affiliations.

Second, while India has aspirations to emerge as a great power, there is little recognition of responsibilities that come with such status. As a rising power, India seeks to be included in the decision-making processes of various international forums. In the near future, India will work towards full membership in APEC , SCO and other international frameworks, which will demand greater time from Prime Minister Modi and future Indian leaders. It may be erroneously argued that the western countries, because of their prosperity, can indulge their leaders with international travel. On the contrary, the prosperity of the West is because of their intense international engagement. Moreover, the P-5 countries have veto power in the Security Council of the United Nations, which gives them significant leverage in international politics. And yet, the leaders of these countries found it necessary to traverse the world to promote their economic interests and to ensure that the balance-of-power is in their favor. India is neither a member of the Security Council nor is it plugged into global production networks. Hence, it is imperative for the Indian leadership to step out and engage the world.

Finally, vigorous engagement of the NRI communities has become an important component of Prime Minister Modi’s visits abroad. Modi’s speeches, the spirited participation of the NRIs and the live telecast of these events in India give an impression of a ‘constant campaign’ approach. To this, the opposition parties have responded by questioning the very necessity of the prime minister’s international travel.

Any assessment of Prime Minister Modi’s international engagement should be more nuanced. The Modi government should be challenged on how it proposes to operationalize various international commitments within a specific time frame. Modi did not visit the Middle East or Gulf countries that contribute approximately $40 billion remittances to India, or Africa, which is an emerging market. Instead of asking the Indian prime minister to scale down the international engagement, Modi government should be pushed to articulate a clear strategy for the Middle East and Africa. Then Modi should travel to the appropriate countries as required to enhance ties and advance India’s interests.

Mr. Sanjay Pulipaka works at ICRIER, New Delhi. Views are personal. Follow him on twitter @psanjay_in.


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