Dr. Chris Nonis Chaired the Board of Governors of the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK ; served as Trustee of the Royal Commonwealth Society; the Board of the Imperial War Museum; and the Advisory Council of Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Trust. He served as Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the UK and was voted ‘Diplomat of the Year’ for Asia in 2012. He Chairs the Advisory Council for Sri Lanka of the British Asian Trust, a Charity of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.
I had the privilege of meeting the Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi whilst representing a Commonwealth business delegation to Gujarat almost a decade ago, together with Geoffrey Van Orden, a Member of the European Parliament. Prime Minister Modi was in his third term as Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time, and our discussions provided me with a fascinating insight into his character.
He was humble and unassuming, and willing to listen, and at the same time was engaging and charismatic, and he developed an instant rapport with all of us. He was keen to discuss a plethora of issues including innovative ideas on affordable emerging technologies, socio-economic development and cooperation, rural upliftment, environmental issues, investment and pan-Commonwealth trade. Equally compelling was his razor sharp and disciplined focus, and he was quick to steer the conversation to matters of relevance and impact, to areas where he could be of assistance, in order to make our discussions fruitful and productive. He had a strong vision of what he wanted to achieve, with an absolute clarity of thought and purpose in developing a citizen–centric Commonwealth of Nations. I felt he had a deep and nuanced understanding of the plight of the masses, and was passionate about the imperative of improving their lives, and discussing pragmatic ways in which all Commonwealth countries could assist one another, in being at the forefront of an inclusive and equitable globalisation.
I came out of the discussion both humbled and inspired, and I was convinced that one day he would lead the world’s largest democracy, and do well for the common man, as well as increasing India’s global sphere of influence.
He signed and presented me with his biography ”Narendra Modi: The Architect of a Modern State” which contextualizes the success of Gujarat during his tenure as Chief Minister, and the manner in which he unlocked its potential as an entrepreneurial, business-friendly state, with a proactive, responsive government, ripe for investment.
The photograph of our meeting, portrayed in the “Leading the Leaders” section of this website, captures the quintessence of PM Modi. He was sufficiently humble to listen to what we had to say, engaging, charismatic, yet strong, decisive, and focused as to how we could collaborate together and achieve impact, which have been his hallmarks.
Since his first election victory in 2014, which was mainly on a platform of change, he has moved from Chief Minister to Statesman, and in the backdrop of the evolving geopolitical architecture of the world, he has visited over 60 Countries in his own indomitable style, forging relationships, building close personal rapport with world leaders, seeking areas of synergy, concomitantly engaging with the Indian Diaspora, whilst expanding India’s stature globally.
PM Modi’s overwhelming second election victory in 2019 with a historic win for the BJP, was clearly the peoples’ mandate for Prime Minister Modi himself. It was a reflection of, firstly, his passion and commitment in attempting to address the needs and aspirations of the rural poor, in the provision of basic amenities, ranging from electrification, sanitation, and housing. Secondly, it was a reflection of his integrity, and focused and selfless leadership style exemplifying a strong National interest. Thirdly, it is his engaging leadership style that has been the key to the renaissance in the foreign policy of India, the world’s largest democracy, in improving India’s position within the Commonwealth family and the global arena.
He has led a paradigm shift in India’s diplomatic outlook. He has adopted a more assertive stance in his foreign policy, in particular with regard to India’s Defence and National Security issues. In response to China’s vast and expanding global footprint and impressive Belt and Road Initiative, he has recalibrated India’s relations with the West, especially the US, a key strategic ally, and President Trump’s visit in late February 2020 reaffirmed this enhanced bilateral relationship and areas of convergence. He has also adopted a more robust stance towards Pakistan, and has also overseen the metamorphosis of India’s “Look East” policy to a more practical “Act East” Policy, increasing engagement and strategic outreach with the Indo-Pacific Alliance and the Quadrilateral Security alliance. PM Modi has additionally begun to engage comprehensively with the Middle East Region, in particular with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the past few years have seen stronger alliances within the Arab Gulf, in the context of the increasing multipolarity of the region.
He reinforced his commitment to India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy immediately after coming to power, by inviting regional leaders to his oath-taking ceremony, and he subsequently engaged in visiting all the countries in India’s maritime neighborhood. Following the resounding election victory of HE President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka in 2019, Prime Minister Modi invited the new President to visit India as his first bilateral foreign visit, which served to strengthen and enhance the relationship between India and Sri Lanka, in particular with regard to mutual cooperation on security issues, and underlines the importance PM Modi attaches to neighbouring Sri Lanka, a maritime Nation with geopolitical significance.
PM Modi’s decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in London in 2018, the first in a decade for India, demonstrates a renewed Indian outlook towards the Commonwealth. India was one of the founding members of the modern Commonwealth, and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was the leading figure behind the London Declaration of 1949, which gave birth to the modern Commonwealth. India today is home to over half of its 2.4 Billion members and over quarter of its internal trade, and has the largest youth population in the world which is in reality its future, and I recall the words of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of the Commonwealth, who said “the future of the Commonwealth is in the hands of the young”. PM Modi’s Commonwealth outreach after a period of over ten years is timely, especially in view of Britain looking towards an invigorated Commonwealth in the post-Brexit era.
Given PM Modi’s aspirations for India’s emerging global role, the Commonwealth provides a suitable platform for India’s power projection with an array of States, especially where China, its great superpower rival is not a member.PM Modi had a comprehensive engagement with many of the Commonwealth Heads of Government at the last CHOGM, and India has contributed to several innovative funding lines such as the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation, and the Commonwealth Trade Finance Facility. The Commonwealth Secretary- General recently spoke about Prime Minister Modi’s Digital India project as bringing “a new hope for other developing and aspiring countries of the Commonwealth”, an initiative which is particularly relevant in the post-COVID-19 era of providing accessible and inclusive digital transformation for developing countries. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, whilst launching the BAT COVID-19 emergency appeal, praised the role of British Asians during the COVID-19 pandemic, and more recently addressed the virtual India Global Week 2020 Summit, during which he praised India’s sustainable way of life, and commented that “India’s diversity and resilience is a personal inspiration to me and has much to teach us all”.
During my tenure as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Commonwealth Secretariat, I recall articulating my own view of the imperative of addressing “Common Poverty” if we are to achieve “Common Wealth”. Prime Minister Modi’s approach has been just that, and is an example for all Commonwealth Countries. His meteoric rise from humble beginnings selling tea on the streets of Vadnagar to help his father feed his family, to becoming the undisputed leader of the world’s largest democracy, is a phenomenal achievement, and moreover provides an inspiring lesson to all of us throughout the Commonwealth and beyond, that nothing is impossible, if we have the right vision, attitude, hard work, focus and the will to succeed, whilst always having as paramount the needs of our people rather than ourselves.
In the words of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore “Everything comes to us that belongs to us, if we create the capacity to receive it”. It has indeed been a privilege to have been asked to share a few thoughts on Hon. Prime Minister Modi’s 70TH Birthday, from a personal, foreign policy, and Commonwealth perspective, and I wish the Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi all the very best today and in all his future endeavours.