Narendra Modi’s election as prime minister will be another epochal turn in India’s ongoing democratic experiment. The elevation of a staunch Hindu nationalist, who is also a rank outsider to politics in New Delhi, only confirms the public’s disenchantment with the UPA government.
Mr Modi’s rise has been watched closely by India’s friends abroad, especially those chagrined by its failure to play the confident role they had expected. Nowhere have these expectations been dashed more grievously than in the United States.
Whatever else may be believed about Mr Modi, all are agreed that he is a decisive leader. That such an individual will head India now raises new hope that U.S.-Indian relations may be rejuvenated.
Obviously, engagement will not come easily. The revocation of Mr Modi’s U.S visa in 2005, provoked by allegations of his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, was personally bruising for him. The prospect for dramatically resuscitating bilateral ties, therefore, looks less than promising.
The Obama administration, however, has sought to signal its willingness to let bygones be bygones, declaring that it “look[s] forward to engagement with the new government.”
But this overture is unlikely to win Mr Modi’s heart and mind absent a public American expression of regret for the visa revocation or an open personal welcome to the United States.
It is politically impossible for Washington to do the former, and it is unlikely that the latter would happen before the election results are clear. How much of a difference post-election felicitations would make to Mr Modi, however, is uncertain.
Policy paradigm The bottom line is that Washington and Modi have got off on the wrong foot. While it is nevertheless doubtful that he would go out of his way to spite the United States, he will not ingratiate himself with Washington either.
If bilateral relations receive a boost in these circumstances, it will only be because Mr Modi takes certain actions that, although benefiting the United States, are intended primarily to advance Indian interests.
Dr Manmohan Singh’s deep commitment to transforming U.S.-Indian relations lost momentum during his second term due largely to the downturn in India’s economic policies (and fortunes) and a slowing in defense and strategic cooperation. Mr Modi will likely alter Indian policies for the better in both areas.
If his record in Gujarat is anything to go by, Mr Modi will encourage greater private initiative in combating India’s economic problems and will seek to improve its investment climate.
To the degree that India’s economy picks up steam, U.S. national interests are well-served. Bilateral trade and investment as well as profitability will increase, cushioning the current trade-related problems. If India’s economic strength and political confidence grow, U.S. strategic aims in Asia are advanced.
There are, however, lurking dangers as well. Mr Modi’s ascension has revived fears that India’s minorities may face elevated threats. Were Gujarat-type riots to repeat themselves, the risks to U.S.-Indian relations would be great.
But there is reason to believe that Mr Modi is unlikely to provoke any divisiveness that undermines his larger economic and political ambitions: he wants India to succeed so that he can stay in power—for a long time. But high economic growth and acute national unrest generally don’t go together.
Pakistan problem India-Pakistan relations offer other risks. But international observers should not suppose that Modi will automatically favour violent responses to Pakistan in the event of a crisis. The larger danger is that, distracted by the economy, Mr Modi will ignore Islamabad, creating incentives for Pakistan’s “deep state” to rely more heavily on jihadi groups to get his attention.
Because such eventualities represent the most serious threat to U.S. interests in South Asia today, the Obama administration ought to reach out publicly and generously to Modi upon his election. Whatever his present misgivings, Modi will realize upon taking office that a fruitful relationship with the United States serves India’s interests and vice versa; he should therefore be prepared to pursue a robust cooperation agenda, using the next Strategic Dialogue to prove the point.
Sustaining the bilateral relationship is important to both countries, but will require sensitivity and dexterity on each other’s part. Only genuine reciprocity can slowly correct what could otherwise become a productive yet joyless relationship between Washington and New Delhi.
(Ashley J. Tellis is Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)