At Mahabalipuram, Modi seeks to send a message to the world, Tamils

Workers cleaning up the world heritage site monuments ahead of the informal summit between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping next week. Photo: PTI

Mahabalipuram is being dressed up to receive Chinese President Xi Jinping. The choice of this sleepy tourist town 60 km from Chennai as a venue for India-China bilateral talks is deliberate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not only keen to introduce the ancient Tamil culture with deep Chinese links to the visiting dignitary but also to use the occasion to reach out to the people of Tamil Nadu.

The ancient port town had defence pact between the Pallavas and the Chinese which is 1,700 years old. It was a massive business hub and served as a gateway for the import and export of Chinese goods into the Tamil land.

Xi and Modi have met 10 times in the last two years in various bilateral and multilateral forums. Modi hosted Xi in Sabarmati in 2014 immediately after his first win. He is now hosting him on India’s southern state to focus on deeper economic ties between the two countries. With a repeat mandate stronger than the first one, Xi will meet a much more confident Modi.

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Modi visited 45 countries in his first regime and used the opportunity to build a stronger image of India abroad and build a consensus against terrorism with an objective to isolate Pakistan as a rouge nation. During his US visit, in Houston, Modi demonstrated his ability to leverage Non-Resident Indians to his advantage to forge visibly stronger ties with the United States and personally with President Donald Trump.

Narayani Basu, a New Delhi-based author and independent foreign policy analyst who focuses on China, says sustained engagement between the two countries signals a new level of maturity.

“There has been a fairly successful attempt at delinking historical geopolitical and territorial issues from issues which are economic in nature,” Basu said.

He feels “as a result, the BRI and border issues have not managed to overshadow the remaining business between the two countries.”

Both leaders share similarities. In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Modi has portrayed a hardline image of himself and his government, especially on issues of national security and emerged stronger. Similarly, Xi has emerged as a stronger leader since his reappointment last year by a higher emphasis on economic nationalism and connectivity.

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During Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram summit Modi is expected to use his style of highly visible diplomacy to build on various issues through informal discussions between the two countries. Ambassadors of several leading nations will be watching the summit closely as United States’ closeness with India is also seen as its effort to check the growing Chinese influence in the region.

Besides international diplomacy, the choice of Mamallapuram is important for BJP for furthering its domestic agenda in Tamil Nadu. The party has made several attempts in the last six years but has failed to make headway electorally. But the party now feels that it is able to change the tide by gradually reducing the hostile reception it received in the initial stages.

Tamil Nadu stands out as an island for BJP and it is keen to make a dent in the region in 2024 Lok Sabha polls. While the party has begun to make preparations behind the scenes by trying to build grassroots support, the leadership is trying to keep the focus on the party and its government at the Centre by organising high profile events such as the India-China summit.

The party has set an internal target of winning 15 seats from Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the next Lok Sabha elections. While skeptics may shrug it off, the party had begun to make similar preparations in 2014 in North East and West Bengal which resulted in handsome gains in 2019 elections and the party was able to gain about 30 seats.

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BJP feels regular visits of Modi would help reduce negative feelings about him and the party built over the years in the state. Tamil Nadu has been for long looking at BJP largely as a north Indian, Hindi-belt party. Modi is keen to break that image.

BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu are surely enthused by the summit. Modi’s visit, however, would be watched closely by Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswamy and Leader of Opposition, M K Stalin. The chief minister is taking personal interest in preparations of the Modi-Xi summit, but the bigger political messaging would not have escaped his attention either.