Every diplomatic visit is a mix of substance and symbolism. In the context of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fourth visit to the United States in his two years in office, the symbolism is easy enough to assess. The well-choreographed itinerary, the meeting with business leaders at the US-India Business Council, the pilgrimage to the Arlington National Cemetery where America’s martyred soldiers lie, the juxtaposition of Arlington and the anniversary of D-Day — part of a larger World War II experience where Indian and Americans were allies, the address to the Houses of Congress, and the set of related events that made for “Modi’s Day on the Hill”: every moment was well-planned and well-chosen.
The speech to the joint meeting of the Houses was letter perfect. It ticked off every box — from Lincoln to Gandhi, Martin Luther King to Ambedkar, Vivekananda to Walt Whitman; the salute to “the shared ideals and common philosophy of freedom”; the common threat perception from terrorism; the quest for a meaningful partnership that was fundamental to India’s development, and could re-order the world to America’s comfort.
In Washington, DC, where the US Congress has emerged as Pakistan’s toughest interrogator on terrorism, Modi presented his case subtly but effectively. His talking up the Indian diaspora on previous visits — which some analysts dismissed as little more than an ego trip — paid dividends too. After all, this is an election year and Congressmen seeking re-election need every vote and every fundraising opportunity they can get. Being on the right side of India and welcoming of its popular Prime Minister could do no harm domestically.
Here one sees a continuum from the Madison Square event of 2014 to the address to the US Congress in 2016; over two years, Modi has followed a strategic plan. The emergence of Capitol Hill as a robust constituency for India in the US capital city may just be a legacy of the Modi government. Of course, much depends on how opportunities that present themselves over the next few months, before voting day in November, are exploited.
The bond and working relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Modi has surprised many. In fact, sections of the American press, including The New York Times and Washington Post — which competed with each for thin and non-substantial coverage of the visit and its implications — have spent the past two years continuing to be surprised by it and rehashing the same stories and same sets of quotes.
True, Modi and Obama are very different individuals with very different backgrounds. Yet, Modi is more of a thinking man than his critics give him credit for, and Obama more of a consummate, goal-oriented politician than his gushing fans believe. They met as strangers two years ago — but there has been no sign of estrangement since then. That is why those who claim to be still surprised by the friendship do themselves and their sense of analysis no credit.
As the Modi-Obama talks and joint statement made apparent, behind the bonhomie, there was give-and-take and transactionalism. The Paris climate change talks and their successful conclusion are an important element of the Obama legacy. India, under Modi, emerged as a constructive problem-solver in Paris. By committing India to “full implementation” of the Paris Agreement and making substantive reference in the joint statement to a clean energy initiative that will involve India-US commercial and technological partnerships in nuclear and solar energy, Modi gave Obama enough to be able to sell back home.
The logistics agreement, which allows the two militaries to use each other’s facilities and has India getting that much more aligned (though not quite allied, and there is a difference) with US defence and military postures, was another issue behind which Modi was willing to put his weight. In contrast, previous governments had dithered. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been thwarted by his own Defence Minister. On cyber-security and Internet governance, Modi and Obama have essentially made India and the US co-custodians of freedom on the electronic highway.
In turn, Obama welcomed India into the Missile Technology Control Regime and promised to support its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG). These are crucial clubs for access to sensitive, dual-use technology. The expectation now is that Obama will use his political capital to persuade China to agree to open the NSG door. The coordinated US-India diplomacy of 2008 — in the run up to the NSG waiver to India — could return. The G20 meeting in September in Hangzhou, where Obama and Modi will meet again, is a possible milestone.
It is facile to suggest that very little of the above is specific and that these are works in progress. We need to measure Modi’s Mission America not in terms of just one visit but as an aggregation of the achievements of a set of interactions in the US and in India, including when President Obama arrived in January 2015. From climate change to defence ties, from nuclear commerce to the testy intellectual property argument, the “not give an inch” rhetoric of the past is giving way to a “let’s make it work” maturity.
Rather than a perennial complainer, Modi’s India has emerged as a doer. A case in point is Pakistan and terrorism. Without taking recourse to the old wailing sheet and cribbing to everyone about Islamabad, Modi has devised a mechanism to shape the debate to India’s advantage. The joint statement says the US and India “will work together to combat the threat of terrorists accessing and using chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological materials”. It also has the US promising to participate in a “Summit on Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism” to be hosted by India in 2018. The message to Rawalpindi is obvious.
Postscript: On another note, the tantalising prospect of an India visit by Obama before his term ends in January 2017 is alluded to in the joint statement. One wonders if a quick, post-G20 stop is on the cards?
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