Prime Min­is­ter Modi’s visit to USA: A pre­lim­i­nary as­sess­ment

SP's MAI - - SPECIAL FEATURE - [ By Ad­mi­ral Arun Prakash (Retd) ]

Such is the in­ten­sity of In­dia’s do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, as com­pared to other democ­ra­cies, that it makes huge de­mands on the time and mind-space of its lead­er­ship. Aware of this pit­fall Naren­dra Modi had ob­vi­ously charted be­fore as­sum­ing of­fice a well-planned strat­egy to deal with some crit­i­cal for­eign pol­icy is­sues be­fore do­mes­tic events crowded his po­lit­i­cal hori­zon.

Con­se­quently, In­dia’s new Prime Min­is­ter en­sured that he hit the ground run­ning; and the in­au­gu­ral oath-tak­ing cer­e­mony was con­verted into a suc­cess­ful mini-SAARC, with Mau­ri­tius thrown in. Soon there­after, Modi vis­ited Bhutan and Nepal to mend neigh­bour­hood fences. A gath­er­ing in Brazil pro­vided him an early op­por­tu­nity to meet the BRICS lead­er­ship. This was fol­lowed by a warm wel­come and bond­ing with Shinzo Abe in Ja­pan, from where he re­turned to re­ceive Chi­nese supremo Xi Jin­ping in Ahmed­abad on his birth­day.

For a Prime Min­is­ter, barely four months in of­fice, the pace of for­eign af­fairs in­ter­ac­tion could not have been more hec­tic than this. How­ever, it was cer­tainly the best crash course Modi could have had in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and diplo­macy, be­fore meet­ing the leader of the wan­ing su­per­power, Pres­i­dent Obama.

Modi’s Mo­ti­va­tion

While the os­ten­si­ble mo­ti­va­tion for Modi to sched­ule a US visit so early in his five-year ten­ure was attendance at the 69th an­nual ses­sion of the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly (UNGA), there were four other rea­sons that need brief men­tion in or­der to make a co­gent as­sess­ment of this out­ing.

Firstly it was to be a ‘rite of pas­sage’ to mark his tran­si­tion from the sta­tus of pariah, de­nied a US visa in 2005, to hon­oured state guest. Se­condly, Modi needed to con­vey his per­sonal thanks to the

po­lit­i­cally in­flu­en­tial and well-heeled In­dian-Amer­i­can di­as­pora which had ren­dered solid support to his elec­tion cam­paign and would con­tinue to be a source of ad­vo­cacy in the US. Thirdly, he came to re­as­sure a dis­il­lu­sioned and scep­ti­cal US business com­mu­nity that he would make it easy, safe and lu­cra­tive for them to invest in In­dia; some­thing the coun­try badly needs for eco­nomic re­vival.

Fi­nally, as it be­came painfully ob­vi­ous dur­ing Xi Jin­ping’s re­cent visit to In­dia, In­dia needs a diplo­matic hedge to pro­vide some lever­age with Beijing. It is for­tu­itous that the US too hap­pens to have a some­what sim­i­lar re­quire­ment at this junc­ture.

Some High­lights of Visit

Let us, then, re­view some key high­lights, which con­trib­uted to the un­doubted suc­cess of Modi’s maiden visit to the United States as Prime Min­is­ter of In­dia.

At the UNGA, where he spoke in Hindi, Modi be­lied me­dia pre­dic­tions by largely ig­nor­ing Nawaz Sharif’s provoca­tive speech. In a states­man-like ad­dress, he sum­mar­ily dealt with the Kashmir is­sue and then went on to dwell on ter­ror­ism; crit­i­cis­ing those who dis­tin­guished be­tween so-called, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ter­ror­ists as well as those (read Pak­istan) who used it as a pol­icy in­stru­ment. While ex­press­ing sol­i­dar­ity with the US in its fight against the Is­lamic State of Iraq and the Le­vant (ISIS), he re­frained from com­mit­ting In­dia to ma­te­rial or man­power support for the mil­i­tary ac­tion.

In New York’s Cen­tral Park, Modi made a re­mark­able out­reach to en­gage the Amer­i­can pub­lic di­rectly by at­tend­ing the Global Cit­i­zen Fes­ti­val on a Satur­day. Modi’s ini­tia­tives on women’s em­pow­er­ment and im­prov­ing san­i­ta­tion had earned him an invitation from the or­gan­is­ers of the fest at­tended by 60,000 young peo­ple. He de­liv­ered his only English-lan­guage speech, at this high-pro­file in­ter­na­tional ad­vo­cacy event, and con­cluded, to cheers, with the Star Wars phrase “May the Force be with you.”

The pro­gramme at Madi­son Square Gar­den (MSG), ac­cord­ing to Modi’s own tweet, “Was over­whelm­ing. It was very spe­cial to in­ter­act with mem­bers of the di­as­pora.” Prime Min­is­ter Modi was the star of a glitzy show for the In­dian-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity at a venue bet­ter known for host­ing rock stars and world heavy­weight box­ing champs. To an em­bar­rass­ingly adu­la­tory au­di­ence, he of­fered sub­stan­tive com­mit­ments; visas on ar­rival for US cit­i­zens by 2015 and lifetime visas for In­dian-Americans. By all ac­counts, Modi’s MSG ap­pear­ance was a re­sound­ing suc­cess. No other In­dian Prime Min­is­ter has con­nected so well with the In­dian-Americans, or sat­is­fied their yearn­ing for recog­ni­tion of the moth­er­land as Modi seemed to have.

As far as the US business com­mu­nity was con­cerned, Modi started on a re­as­sur­ing note by en­gag­ing di­rectly with business lead­ers. Rather than paint rosy pic­tures, he fo­cused on what he and his gov­ern­ment needed to do in or­der to at­tract higher lev­els of in­vest­ment. The sense of mu­tual dis­en­chant­ment, ac­com­pa­nied by a de­cline in Indo-US business re­la­tion­ship, had be­gun in 2010 when Par­lia­ment passed a nu­clear li­a­bil­ity law whose daunt­ing pro­vi­sions es­sen­tially frightened off the US nu­clear power in­dus­try. This had negated the pos­i­tive im­pact of the land­mark 2005 agree­ment on civil­ian nu­clear co­op­er­a­tion, so painstak­ingly ne­go­ti­ated by the Man­mo­han Singh-Bush regimes.

Modi’s prom­ise of sim­pli­fied pro­ce­dures, rapid decision-mak­ing, im­ple­men­ta­tion of the goods and ser­vices tax by 2016 and the tan­ta­lis­ing po­ten­tial of In­dia’s huge mar­ket should in­fuse the nec­es­sary vigour into this wilt­ing re­la­tion­ship.

The Strate­gic Un­der­pin­ning

Even be­fore he came to of­fice, Modi had marked In­dia and the US as ‘nat­u­ral al­lies’, stat­ing; “It is in the in­ter­est of both the na­tions to de­velop fur­ther on our re­la­tion­ship.” Pres­i­dent Obama in turn had out­lined the task ahead for both lead­er­ships to work to­gether “to ful­fil the ex­tra­or­di­nary prom­ise of the US-In­dia strate­gic part­ner­ship.”

Modi and Obama seemed to have en­gaged each other closely in their Oval Of­fice meet­ing on Septem­ber 27, and also de­vel­oped a close per­sonal rap­port. The two lead­ers were said to have ex­pressed con­cern about ris­ing ten­sions over ter­ri­to­rial and mar­itime dis­putes, and af­firmed the im­por­tance of en­sur­ing free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and over­flight through­out the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion. The White House spokesper­son com­mented that the talks were ‘ex­traor­di­nar­ily suc­cess­ful’ and pro­vided a boost to ‘re-en­er­gise the re­la­tion­ship’. The State Depart­ment echoed the sen­ti­ment, say­ing, that the talks had ‘re-launched’ the Indo-US re­la­tion­ship.

Build­ing on this agenda, In­dia’s Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Ajit Do­val and his US coun­ter­part Susan Rice dis­cussed re­gional de­vel­op­ments, in­clud­ing sta­bil­ity in Afghanistan and cy­ber as well as mar­itime se­cu­rity. Is­sues re­lat­ing to de­fence co­op­er­a­tion and arms pur­chases (en­com­pass­ing tech­nol­ogy trans­fers and joint pro­duc­tion), in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing, co­op­er­a­tion on anti-ter­ror­ism and strate­gic con­sul­ta­tions were also ad­dressed at var­i­ous lev­els.

As al­ways in such mat­ters, the “devil is in the de­tail” and a true as­sess­ment of Modi’s US visit would emerge only in hind­sight; a few months down the line. Till then, both sides can pon­der over words of the Modi-Obama joint ed­i­to­rial which said, “The true po­ten­tial of our re­la­tion­ship has yet to be fully re­alised. The ad­vent of a new gov­ern­ment in In­dia is a nat­u­ral op­por­tu­nity to broaden and deepen our re­la­tion­ship. With a rein­vig­o­rated level of am­bi­tion and greater con­fi­dence, we can go beyond mod­est and con­ven­tional goals.”


The term ‘strate­gic’ has un­for­tu­nately come to be grossly overused in New Delhi’s politico-diplo­matic dis­course. In­dia has es­tab­lished ‘strate­gic part­ner­ships’ with at least 20 coun­tries (in­clud­ing China), and of­fi­cials in the Min­istry of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs as well as the Min­istry of De­fence are of­ten hard put to ex­plain the sig­nif­i­cance or rel­a­tive im­por­tance of th­ese re­la­tion­ships and their bear­ing on In­dia’s pos­ture of ‘strate­gic au­ton­omy.’

In the fuzzy en­vi­ron­ment that pre­vails right across South Block, it is vi­tal for decision-mak­ers to con­tin­u­ously re­mind them­selves of Bri­tish states­man, Lord Palmer­ston’s words: “Bri­tain has no eter­nal al­lies and no per­pet­ual en­e­mies, only in­ter­ests that are per­pet­ual and eter­nal.” In­dia’s new Prime Min­is­ter par­tic­u­larly can­not af­ford to have less than com­plete clar­ity, as far as In­dia’s vi­tal in­ter­ests are con­cerned.

As In­dia pon­ders over the form and con­tent of co­op­er­a­tion it should seek with the US, Modi can­not over­look China’s res­o­lute quest for re­gional dom­i­na­tion and its de­ter­mi­na­tion to keep In­dia con­fined to a ‘South Asian box’ by means of the Sino-Pak nu­clear and mil­i­tary nexus. Equally ob­vi­ous is the fact that In­dia cur­rently has few cards to play – eco­nomic, diplo­matic or mil­i­tary vis- à- vis an in­creas­ingly bel­liger­ent China; strate­gic au­ton­omy is an un­likely trump.

Hark­ing back 43 years, to the hey­day of the non-aligned move­ment, let us re­call the sign­ing of the 1971 sign­ing of the Treaty of Peace and Friend­ship with the USSR. Let us also re­call that as the un­holy Nixon-Kissinger duo urged Mao Tse-tung to in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily in the Bangladesh War the US Navy sailed Task Force 74 into the Bay of Ben­gal – both to re­lieve pres­sure on Pak­istan Pres­i­dent Yahya Khan’s doomed East­ern army.

In mid-De­cem­ber 1971, the Soviet Am­bas­sador in Delhi dis­missed the pos­si­bil­ity of ex­ter­nal in­ter­ven­tion by em­pha­sis­ing that the Soviet Fleet was also in the In­dian Ocean and would check­mate the US Navy; and if China moved into Ladakh, USSR was ready to re­spond mil­i­tar­ily in Sinkiang. Not a leaf stirred on the Sino-In­dian bor­der and Pak­istan sur­ren­dered in Dhaka.

In­dia’s na­tional in­ter­ests re­main eter­nal but surely al­lies can change.

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi in a bi­lat­eral meet­ing with US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama,

at the White House in Wash­ing­ton DC

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