Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping look out over East Lake in Wuhan in this photo taken on April 28, 2018. Their talk aimed to reduce border tensions but it appears to have had limited effect. Photo: AFP/ govt handout
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping look out over the East Lake in Wuhan in this photo taken on April 28, 2018. Their talk was aimed at reducing border tensions but it appears to have had limited effect. Photo: AFP/ Govt handout

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been out of his office every third day in his four years in power, data compiled by Asia Times shows. Modi spent 477 out of 1,491 days – up till Tuesday June 26 – in his term as PM visiting different Indian states and 54 other countries.

This is equivalent to a year and three months out of his four years and one month as prime minister. The data has been compiled from the official Indian government websites and the Press Information Bureau. Visits missing on both portals were identified from national and local media reports.

Modi has attracted criticism and memes for his frequent travel over the past four years. During his first two years in office, the Opposition began to mock him as a “frequent visitor to India”. Critics argue that his traveling schedule leaves the PM with no time to address issues at home. Their argument is buttressed by the prime minister’s steady silence on key issues affecting India, such as rising unemployment, communalism, marginalization of minorities, and poor implementation of programs like the Goods and Services Tax and Aadhaar.

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Modi spent 313 days on domestic travel and the remaining 164 days on travel to other countries. For Modi’s trips abroad, the cost to state coffers for his chartered flights alone was Rs 3.7 billion (US$53.6 million).

In his domestic travels, Modi spent most time in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (54 days) and in his home state Gujarat (50 days). But there were fewer visits to states in the North-east and the country’s Union Territories. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, one of India’s seven union territories, is yet to get a visit from the PM.

While traveling abroad, Modi’s favorite destination seems to be China, which he has visited six times – including twice this year. Other countries Modi has frequented include the United States and Germany (five trips each).

Govt ‘decisions await his return’

The previous government headed by Manmohan Singh was criticized, justifiably, for “policy paralysis”, but the Modi administration seems to be in a similar boat. Ever since Modi took over the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the government has witnessed a major centralization in decision-making. And his frequent travel has led, naturally, to a different kind of policy paralysis.

“The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC) is virtually down to one man, the prime minister,” a senior bureaucrat in Delhi told Asia Times. “The Home Minister is practically an observer and decisions are now taken by the prime minister only. This has led to people waiting for appointments and many times, key bodies function without a head because the prime minister is traveling,” this official said.

A senior Congress leader and former cabinet minister also noted that most key decisions are taken only when Modi is in Delhi. “They had to wait for rolling out the GST and the lack of adequate consensus-building led to a messy implementation. From what we have been told, key disinvestment decisions were put on the back burner because the prime minister didn’t want them through.” Even the annual budget, the exclusive preserve of the Ministry of Finance, seems to be within the direct control of the PMO, the former minister said. This was also confirmed by a senior bureaucrat who has served in the ministry.

Lots of speeches

Most of Modi’s domestic trips involved inaugurating new construction works like toilets and dams or launching development projects. In almost every event the PM delivered 20 to 30 minute-long speeches, if not longer.

His speeches often have deep political undertones, with Modi mostly praising the developmental work of his government. He has regularly lauded the success of his ‘Clean India’ initiative and benefits of various public schemes launched in his term, while routinely criticizing past governments for their alleged lack of work.

Modi’s foreign trips included attending summits like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation  (SAARC), the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), G7 and G20. In several visits, including those to the United Kingdom, Australia, Afghanistan, and Nepal, Modi has addressed the country’s parliament.

In countries with a substantial Indian population, including the Philippines, Kenya, Singapore and Israel, he attended special events to address the resident Indian community. In most of these Modi glorified India’s achievements under his term, and urged those present to participate in his developmental initiatives in India. In New York, Modi even urged the crowd to visit India more and boost tourism.

Broken foreign policy?

Modi’s numerous trips abroad work for him domestically, and politically, but seem to have done little for India’s foreign policy objectives. “The External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has been reduced to Twitter,” a senior foreign ministry official said. “Her travel was cut down right from the beginning and the prime minister took over this function,” the official said.

With Modi traveling far and wide, he has often slept on aircraft as he hopped continents. Earlier travel bans, during his stint as chief minister of Gujarat, were promptly lifted as countries like the UK fell in line. Modi used the visits to drum up support from non-resident Indians living abroad, as well as ensure financial support for the BJP, leading to a massive windfall over the four years.

However, his travels have yielded mixed results. Tensions with China remain high, and reports of Chinese troops in Indian territory have caused a fresh round of worries. Pakistan continues to be a major irritant, and while Modi promised “decisive action to end terrorism”, the state of Jammu and Kashmir has seen more soldiers die during peacetime operations than ever before.

The US, meanwhile, has called off the 2+2 dialogue with India as tensions over trade tariffs reach an all-time high. Relations with Russia are also frozen following India’s push for closer economic and security ties with the US. The ambitious fifth-generation aircraft joint-project was also recently called off by Delhi. Clearly, Modi’s overt focus on domestic poll campaigns hasn’t helped national objectives.

Lots of electioneering

Data collected by Asia Times, reveals an interesting pattern in Modi’s frequent trips to poll-bound states. No doubt, it has given the BJP a chance to dominate national politics like never before.

In 2015, ahead of assembly elections in Bihar, Modi visited the state 14 times in three months. Among these, 12 visits were made completely to herald BJP’s election campaign and address public rallies. In one such rally he promised the state huge funds. “I am here today to honor my promise… how much do you want? Rs 50,000 crore, 60,000, 70,000, 75,000, 80,000? I am announcing a package of Rs 1.25 lakh crore,” he said to the crowd. In other trips he inaugurated national highways and skill development projects.

Even while attending “official” events in election-bound states — where he would announce lucrative packages or lay the foundation stone for a public project — Modi manages to take time off to campaign for the BJP on the sidelines.

His days out-of-office follow a similar pattern before any major state election. Before and around assembly elections in Gujarat, for example, he spent 21 days in the state. Of these, 14 were on trips classified as “unofficial” according to the PM’s official website. Similarly, for the closely fought election in Karnataka in May, Modi spent six of the first 10 days of the month in the state – all on unofficial trips.

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