At the end of his rousing speech to the U.S. Congress, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quoted Walt Whitman to indicate that there was a “new symphony in play” between India and the U.S. The past two years bear out such lyricism in the bilateral relationship. Defence ties have been consolidated in three ways: in defence procurement from the U.S. as well as co-development projects, which are worth over $14 billion; in coordination, cooperation and sharing of information between the two defence forces; and increasingly, on the idea of working together on operations on piracy, peacekeeping and patrolling. However, it is the strategic relationship, with India’s positioning on non-alignment, that is the most dramatic score in the symphony. Although the Centre has drawn the line at an alliance and “joint patrols”, it is clear from the joint vision statement signed in New Delhi last year that the Modi government intends to move closer to the U.S. on defence issues. In recognition, during Mr. Modi’s visit the U.S. declared India a “major defence partner”, a designation specially created to describe this new relationship and one that is just short of a military alliance. In 2005, Manmohan Singh told the U.S. Congress of how “India’s growth and prosperity is in American interest”, and the heavy lifting has yielded annual bilateral trade of $107 billion now. On Wednesday, Mr. Modi took the theme forward by saying, “A stronger and prosperous India is in America’s strategic interest.”
All symphonies have a short pause between movements, and the government must take a similar pause as the U.S. administration changes to chart the road ahead. It must also factor in the strategic closeness with the U.S. on its other key bilateral engagements, from Russia to China, and within the neighbourhood. Mr. Modi’s statement that a strong U.S. partnership will “ensure security of the sea lanes of commerce and freedom of navigation on seas” all the way from “Asia to Africa and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific” will be read by Beijing with some concern; India should either reassure China or be prepared for a counter-move from Beijing on this count. Mr. Modi seemed to suggest India has firmly put its Cold War compacts behind it when he said the Indo-U.S. relationship has “overcome the hesitations of history”. If such a candid admission can be made across the seas inside the U.S. Congress, the Modi government would serve India’s foreign policy well to explain its strategic shift to Parliament too. This is a necessary domestic input to allow the relationship to be “a bridge to a more united, humane and prosperous world”, words that drew standing ovation.