Compared to the challenging enterprise Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook last week in steering through shark-infested waters the visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to India, his own 5-day trip to the United States, which began Friday, is safely assured of being smooth as velvet.
The US, like China, is eager to engage Modi who has a reputation for being decisive and “business-friendly”. But unlike in the case with China, there are no detractors or snipers in the Indian strategic community or the corporate media who would play the spoiler’s role. Modi will be in his elements in the US, enjoying the universal adulation he receives there.
Indiais in many ways a strange country. The Indians themselves call it ‘Incredible India’ on their tourist brochures. Not a single Indian pundit has posed that single tough question to Modi: what he hopes to achieve and, specifically, what the US President Barack Obama can be expected to do for India.
What the pundits ask instead is what Modi can do for Obama’s America. They want Modi to hasten the purchase of more arms from the US and “tweak” Indian nuclear liability law so that the Westinghouse could export nuclear reactors to India.
They wish Modi would undo the “negative narrative” causing heavy damage to America’s trading interests by giving the green signal on the Trade Facilitation Agreement of the WTO.
They clamor that Modi should “go the extra mile” by taking at least a “minor role” in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
But no one demands that Modi should expect in return a review of the US policy to accommodate the Taliban in Afghanistan or abandon its double standards on cross-border terrorism threatening India.
Indeed, no one is demanding that Obama should commit to selling significant amounts of shale gas to India or at the very least give up its dog-in-the-manger attitude toward the Iranian gas pipeline project.
Would Obama give a timeline regarding India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group and other technology control regimes and the UN Security Council? Not a chance.
Would Obama match Xi’s commitment to invest $20 billion in India’s economy (which is expected to generate 100000 jobs)? No, please, don’t ask embarrassing questions.
Will Obama accommodate, finally, the decade-old request made by the previous BJP government that the Indian professionals on short-term employment in the US be allowed to repatriate their social security tax payments once they return to India – $1 billion annually? No, that too is not on the cards because the blocked funds belong to America.
Indeed, the pundits are not giving Modi an opportunity to test the US’s overt enthusiasm for him. The consensus among Indian pundits even before Modi set out is that no “deliverables” need be expected from Obama’s side, and the curious part is that no one seems to mind it.
However, Modi himself has chosen to project certain benchmarks for his visit and it will be interesting to see how far they get fulfilled.
No doubt, Modi is eager to open a new chapter in India’s ties with the US. But he also has an extraordinary genius to let his political instincts to guide him in such defining moments. It needs to be understood that in the ultimate analysis, Modi’s audience is at home in India, and his real focus is inevitably on himself, in nurturing the political aura of his charisma and his needs in Indian politics the tricky period that lies ahead for the consolidation of his leadership of government.
Virtually everything that Modi says and does serves that objective. Therefore, he has intuitively worked out how the US visit should serve his political agenda.
From this perspective, the grand public reception by his party’s supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York on Sunday, beamed live to India, clearly overshadows everything else on the itinerary of the visit and guarantees that back home the visit will already be deemed an outstanding success even before Modi even he headed for Washington on Monday to meet Obama.
Not an ally but a partner
While leaving Delhi for the US, Modi made a statement, in which he devoted less than one-third attention span to his official engagement with Obama. The statement carefully avoided using the famous coinage by Modi’s predecessor A. B. Vajpayee (who lead the first BJP government during 1999-2004) that India and the US were “natural allies.”
Instead, Modi was content with a modest formulation – US being a “vital partner” of India. The statement said, “I see the United States as a vital partner for our national development, drawing especially on the rich possibilities of partnership in education, skills, research, technology and innovation – and, above all, a shared commitment to human values.”
Modi also made a major speech in Delhi on Thursday on the eve of his departure for New York, where he formally launched his ‘Make in India’ global initiative, outlining his government’s determination to create a business-friendly environment. But woven into the global initiative was a two-pronged message that he strove to convey to the investors in the US as well as the Obama administration.
One, Modi underscored that “global industries” should not consider India to be “just a market” but their investments should be such that “opportunities for employment will have to be made available.”
Modi kept harping that his government’s priority lies in the sort of investment, which creates job opportunities, especially for the youth – “on the one hand, manufacturing growth is to be promoted, at the same time we need to ensure that direct benefit goes to the youngsters of India. He should get employment so that there is improvement in the economic situation of even the poorest family.”
Modi didn’t mention China or cite that country’s offer to invest in the manufacturing and infrastructure sectors, but the implication was clear.
Asia’s mouth-watering market
Equally, Modi made an acerbic remark, “There is a talk in the entire world, quite a mouth watering one, that India is a huge market.” He could have been referring to media reports that the US Chamber of Commerce and over a dozen other trade bodies in the US have petitioned Obama to pressurize Modi to open up the Indian market for American exports.
A second point Modi made was that he does not regard India’s partnership with Asian partners (read China) and the West (read the United States) in zero sum terms. He was explicit: “Look-East is on one side and Link-West on the other hand – we are linking these both from the middle. We can establish our economic structure on a new platform from here. Whatever is the best in the world, why should we not have it? This should be the mood of the nation.”
Apart from the departure statement Modi also wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal titled “An Invitation to Make in India”. The article also underscored that creating employment and unleashing the energy of 800 million Indians under the age of 35 will be “my government’s biggest mission” and, therefore, “Make in India is our commitment… to turn India into a new global manufacturing hub. We will do what it takes to make it a reality.”
Clearly, from the American viewpoint, as an interlocutor, Modi is going to be a vastly different from Manmohan Singh. Modi is not carrying any goodies in his briefcase by way of defence contracts, etc. to please the Americans; nor is he wasting time indulging in the rhetoric of India-US partnership. Above all, he is demanding and expects the Americans to live up to his expectations.
The main yardstick will be how America can be useful for his development agenda. The Wall Street Journal article was completely deluded of political issues.
In sum, Modi has a highly focused three-fold agenda during this visit – one, develop a personal equation with Obama – as far as it is possible with that famously aloof statesman; two, kick start the India-US relationship, which has been at a standstill in the most recent years, and inject dynamism into it, the objective realities of the transformed world since the financial crisis and the Great Recession of 2008 notwithstanding; and, three, explore what is on offer from America, civil and military, that can lead to job creation in India and facilitate technology upgrade – in short, consciously opt for a transactional relationship that meets India’s vital interests at this point in time on its development trajectory.