Modi's India in the Asian Century

The Straits Times Asian of the Year 2014 award to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi honours the leader of a country whose choices will influence the future of the entire continent. Since his accession to power in May, he has underlined India's stature as a rising power by reaching out to countries such as the United States, China, Japan and Australia, while simultaneously striving to reassure his smaller neighbours of India's benign intentions in South Asia.

Mr Modi seeks to position India as a peer of the great powers. This is natural for a nation of 1.2 billion, with a gross domestic product of US$2 trillion (S$2.63 trillion) that makes it the third most powerful economy in Asia after China and Japan.

Thankfully, Mr Modi is presenting a good case for India's intention to play a stabilising role in a region marked by historical suspicions, territorial rivalries, and threats from religious terrorism and extremism. His foreign policy activism, early into his tenure, has left no doubt that India will not be taken for granted in the evolving Asian scheme of things. That certainly includes Pacific Asia, the focus of the eastward shift in India's outreach.

Of course, it is the success of Mr Modi's domestic economic policies that ultimately will underwrite India's role on the global stage. He is making haste slowly on this front. One reason is the diversity of India's population, which stretches from its vast agricultural heartland to its globalised high-tech cities. Diverse needs have to be reconciled through unifying development. At a less edifying level, entrenched economic interests and the political clout they command weigh down the reformist momentum of the government. This is a fact of life in a democracy. A recalcitrant bureaucracy with a vested interest in inertia complements the workings of economic groups and lobbies seeking to retain a comfortable status quo.

Yet, Mr Modi is a visionary who has his finger on the pulse of India's future, not its passing present. His electoral mandate, his reputation for integrity and efficiency, and his expansive outlook make it imperative for him to take up the reformist programme seriously. What will help him secure a pan-Indian consensus is his nationalist agenda, which is inclusive, unlike the sectarian forces, some of which helped to bring his government to power.

All secular nations have a stake in India's resilience as a non-confessional state in an Asia where a traditional culture of tolerance is being scarred by the rise of religious politics. Singaporeans understand that stake better than most, given their quintessentially multi-religious society and their openness to the world. They would welcome the Asian promise of Mr Modi's India.