The following article originally appeared in the Times of India on October 2, 2014.
Modi’s visit to the US has set the stage for a reset of Indo-US ties based on realism
Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States may have been one of the most unusual and remarkable visits abroad by any Indian prime minister. It featured an astonishingly crowded schedule, with at least seven speeches, numerous interactions with smaller groups, and almost two dozen bilateral meetings with US officials, CEOs, and political and civic leaders.
In five days, Modi met not just with almost the entire US political leadership and a who’s who of the American corporate world, but also more unexpected figures, such as Jewish and Sikh community leaders, the director of the National Cancer Institute, and the mayor of New York City.
It was also a visit rich in symbolism. The itinerary featured Modi’s stroll with President Barack Obama around the Martin Luther King Memorial, his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that effectively dehyphenated Israel from Palestine, a darshan at the 9/11 Memorial, and his outreach to the international NGO community at the Global Citizen Festival in New York’s Central Park. All of this marked a dramatic change in India’s official engagement with the US, particularly in terms of tone, style, and imagery.
The New York leg of Modi’s visit, while initially planned around the United Nations General Assembly meeting, was notable for witnessing the coming of age of Indian-American politics. The gaudy and at times over-the-top extravaganza organised in Modi’s honour by the Indian-American community at New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden was a genuine expression of a community that is carving out a unique identity for itself.
‘Born in the USA’ and ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ blared alongside ‘Chak De India’ and ‘Jana Gana Mana.’ The message: being American does not make Indian-Americans any less Indian, nor is their Indian identity at odds with their American patriotism.
Showcasing their dual identity, coupled with the rousing Beatlemania-like reception they gave the prime minister, served a real political purpose, particularly in the presence of one US state governor, four senators, and several members of the House of Representatives. The occasion effectively consolidated a political constituency that can be leveraged to advance Indo-US relations in concrete terms in the years ahead.
The fact that several possible US presidential aspirants – former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, and Maryland governor Martin O’Malley – took the time and effort to meet with Modi was a further indication of this changing political dynamic between India and the US.
After all the speeches and meetings – including what was reportedly a candid discussion on campaigns and electoral politics between Modi and Obama – there were the outcomes, some expected, others surprising.
The most eye-catching related to counterterrorism, with specific commitment by India and the US to a joint effort to disrupt and dismantle terrorist and criminal networks such as al-Qaida, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the D-Company, and the Haqqanis. This goes well beyond what the US has been publicly willing to commit to in the past.
There was also notable progress in terms of defence ties, including a commitment to renew the 2005 Indo-US defence framework, US cooperation with the Indian national defence university, and an upgrading of the bilateral Malabar naval exercises. There is also a hint that the US might play a bigger role in technology cooperation with the Indian Navy, which could even extend to shipbuilding, a not inconsequential development for securing freedom of navigation and a favourable balance of power in the Indian Ocean.
Other announcements were in line with Modi’s vision for India’s development, which he repeatedly articulated before and during his American sojourn. These included lower barriers for travel (including visas on arrival for US tourists beginning in 2015), joint cooperation on smart cities focussed on Ajmer, Vishakhapatnam, and Allahabad, and $1 billion for financing India’s transition into a low carbon and climate resilient economy.
In a natural continuation of the Indo-US nuclear agreement, the US also agreed to back India’s membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime and Nuclear Suppliers Group, which would mark India’s further integration into the global nuclear mainstream.
This is but Modi’s first visit to the US as prime minister, and it is unlikely to be his last. Over the course of his tour, he managed to make India some new friends. He also managed to charm US business, getting at least one major investment management corporation to commit to an investors’ conference in India. With Thatcher-like plain speak, he told the US-India Business Council that the government has no business being in business, clarifying that he saw its role as a facilitator.
But despite all the positive energy, there’s much work yet to be done in order to recreate an environment of genuine collaboration between India and the US, one marked by candour, private disagreement, and sensitivity to one another’s concerns. Nevertheless, as he returns to India, Prime Minister Modi can feel confident that the basis for such a relationship has been set.