'Modi'- Fying Indo-US Ties


Dr Venkat Lokanathan highlights the numerous factors that will have to be addressed on an urgent basis if the substance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with President Obama has to meet style

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheduled meeting with President Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in September 2014 has gained further salience due to a number of reasons. First, this is his maiden visit as prime minister to the United States. The decisive mandate for Modi from India’s electorate has generated much enthusiasm in American strategic and business community, used to decades of hearing about India’s coalition compulsions and lethargic administrative work culture. Second, the United States had, over the last decade, denied him a diplomatic visa as the Gujarat chief minister over his alleged role in the Godhra riots of 2002. There is intense speculation, especially in the media in both countries, on how these factors will impact bilateral relations.

At the outset, it will be safe to conclude that the second reason will not have any significant impact on relations since Prime Minister Modi has portrayed himself as a pragmatic leader guided solely by his nation’s interests. However, if the United States had pre-empted Modi’s rise and announced the revoking of the visa denial, it might have added a ‘feel good’ factor to bilateral relations. Having failed to do so, the United States seems to have indicated that Modi is an unwelcome visitor – a speculation that it could have avoided keeping in mind its larger interests in Asia. It will be interesting to note if Obama’s plans to have a working dinner with Modi, a privilege rarely accorded to foreign leaders and the enthusiasm among Congressmen for a joint address by Modi, will offset the absence of a ‘feel good’ factor. With his joint address to the Congress, a non-event due to the November Congressional elections, a large number of lawmakers are believed to have requested a meeting with the prime minister. Modi has also received a request for meetings from the top American business community both in New York and Washington DC. Although the first reason will also not have any major impact on how bilateral relations evolve, it will, however, add further enthusiasm among Modi’s supporters within the Indian diaspora to roll out the extra red carpet. There are already enough indications with a sold out event, organised by the Indian American Community Foundation to accord Modi a grand public reception at an over 20,000 capacity Madison Square Garden. This is the first time that such a huge event has been organised by the 4.2-million strong community in honour of an Indian prime minister. Further, his speech will also be beamed live at Times Square, across television channels and online sites.

It is also quite evident now from his visits to Bhutan and Nepal, and his meetings with the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and Chinese President, Xi Jinping, that Prime Minister Modi’s charismatic style will elicit an equally enthusiastic response from President Obama, thereby providing plenty of photo opportunities for the media. However, will all this symbolism lead to substantial efforts towards pulling bilateral relations out of the present logjam? Unfortunately, presently, there are more challenges than opportunities in bilateral relations. If the substance of this meeting has to meet style, then the following factors will have to be addressed on an urgent basis.

Addressing Outstanding Issues

First, both countries, despite numerous attempts, have been unable to develop a working relationship. A fundamental reason could be the failure to remove strong perceptions in India that the United States prefers an unequal partnership where it can clearly dominate the direction in which relations evolve. Proponents in favour of this view have observed that the United States has always dominated its strategic partners – Japan, South Korea, United Kingdom and Australia – ultimately leading to a convergence of their respective worldview with the American worldview. Essentially, continuing to view the United States through the Cold War lenses has heavily influenced such distrust and suspicion.

Second, both countries have, in the recent past, been distracted by rapid developments in areas away from bilateral relations. The American preoccupation with pressing issues including building stability in Afghanistan and Iraq; nuclear wrangling with Iran; and unrest in Syria and Gaza has contributed to shifting US strategic lenses away from India. Simultaneously, the policy paralysis that had engulfed the Manmohan Singh government’s second term amidst allegations of corruption; the emphasis of the new Modi government on its immediate neighbourhood and its preoccupation with internal challenges including extremism and the Kashmir floods have diverted Indian priorities.

Third, India feels disappointed at the lack of American pro-activeness to argue favourably for its entry into the UNSC. If President Obama makes a definitive announcement on this issue after his meeting with Prime Minister Modi, it could go a long way in enabling India to be an active global partner, a responsibility that it has shirked away from so far. India’s entry into the UNSC could also help cover the widening cracks in US relations with Russia and China. India could be viewed as more neutral and hence an effective strategic buffer, than UK or France, especially when it comes to the US-Russia-China triangle.

Fourth, although both sides have expressed strong intent in multiple fora to engage in a robust defence relationship, efforts have stalled between the American desire to sell to a lucrative Indian market on the one hand, and the Indian desire to gain access to technical know-how. Secretary Chuck Hagel during his visit to India significantly acknowledged that the defence relationship needs to transform cooperation from simply buying and selling to co-production, co-development, and freer exchange of technology – a proposal that India has strongly evinced in the recent past. Top US naval officer, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, recently admitted that the US is looking to seek more clarity on military sales and cooperation with India and revive stalled joint exercises to include carrier and submarine operations during Prime Minister Modi’s visit.

Fifth, while the nuclear deal was a landmark achievement in bilateral relations, there is considerable frustration at the lack of nuclear commerce between both sides over differences on India’s nuclear liability law. Simultaneously, while there have been persistent efforts since November 2010 towards India’s phased entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group, no specific details have emerged regarding the process and timeline by when this will be completed.

Sixth, India wants an early conclusion of the Totalisation Agreement with the US, under which an expatriate in either country will not contribute to social security schemes of the host country. Additionally, India has informed the US that its Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernisation Bill, 2013 proposing more visa related restrictions including increased fees are discriminatory, restrictive and lead to an unequal playing field for its vibrant IT sector.

Seventh, the Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal has clearly indicated that the US will push India to end its blockage of a Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) at the WTO, which will ease worldwide customs rules and add $1 trillion to the global economy in addition to creating 21 million jobs. India has linked its stance to efforts at finding a permanent solution for its agricultural stockpiling to provide food security to the poor.

India and the US seem to have already played down any expectations of quick progress on the above issues during the summit meeting. Nisha Biswal has also ruled out the kind of direct investment in India announced by countries like Japan and China, claiming the lack of a directive economic system. Both sides seem to be approaching this visit as an opportunity to renew efforts and commitment towards addressing the above issues over the long term and deepening their engagements across the board.

A good place to begin will be by enhancing interactions between students, researchers and academicians of both countries. India needs to urgently focus on education, research and innovation, areas in which the United States has excelled. A sustained collaboration of minds can alter fixated mindsets and provide a platform towards understanding each other more effectively. This will lay a strong foundation for addressing the numerous challenges in bilateral relations which, in turn, will go a long way in making it one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.

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