Taking ties beyond the Beltway

Narendra Modi’s U.S. visit has restored a degree of confidence to a neglected relationship, preparing the ground for a lift to bilateral ties, while ensuring that India and the U.S. get on with operationalising what they can from their multilayered agenda

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:28 pm IST

Published - October 06, 2014 12:37 am IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States has to be measured against the principal challenge he faced: how to engage with an already preoccupied partner.

He overcame this challenge by interacting with a much broader American audience than any of his predecessors. A very special feature of his visit was his determination to open new doors in the U.S. and take the relationship beyond the beltway in Washington DC. All previous Summit level U.S. visits by Indian leaders featured a mandatory speech at a think tank, interaction with a few Congressional leaders, and a meeting each with businessmen and the Indian community. The public diplomacy effort this time included multiple energetic exchanges with business and industry leaders, the Indian-American community, and U.S. lawmakers, surpassing all previous efforts.

U.S President Barack Obama commented about Mr. Modi’s “rock-star performance” at the Madison Square Garden arena. Far from being just a “tamasha,” the spectacle mobilised the Indian community across the U.S. and imparted to them a sense of pride and hope. Several Congressmen and Senators were present at the event, including some who have been critical of India on IT visas and compulsory licensing. These lawmakers saw at first hand the size, scale and connectedness of the Indian-American community to India, as also Mr. Modi’s crowd-pulling power. The message that this community is now a force whose expectations cannot be ignored, including for better India-U.S. ties, is a positive asset.

Future contours

While engaging new audiences, Mr. Modi did not ignore his host, with whom he established an excellent entente, overcoming the negative overhang of visa-denial since 2002. Moreover, he did not use the visit for inventorying deliverables, but to convey to all his interlocutors, within and outside the U.S. government, India’s aspirations for the future contours of the relationship. Much of this is encapsulated within the Joint Statement, the joint editorial by the two leaders published on the website of The Washington Post , and the Vision Statement of the India-U.S. Strategic Partnership — cleverly captioned by a new “mantra”: “ Chalein Saath Saath : Forward together we go.” Such a vision could help in taking steps towards its progressive concretion.

This visit has gone some way in changing the atmospherics of the bilateral relationship. It has convinced many in the U.S. strategic decision-making community of India’s commitment to forge an enduring partnership with the U.S., as also India’s ability to think on a big scale about its own global role, in which India-U.S. ties could find a new energy.

The American context

Believing his predecessor had overexposed the U.S. globally, Mr. Obama has tried recalibrating foreign policy, with diminished dependence on military power. The 2008 U.S. National Intelligence Council (NIC) report announced a multipolar world and predicted that U.S. power was fated to wane. This coincided with the 2008 economic slowdown. Mr. Obama’s principal policy imperative has been to rebalance U.S. foreign and security policy in order to guide the U.S. towards graceful decline.

Three main initiatives of Mr. Obama — outstretched hand to Iran, strategic reassurance to China, and reset for Russia — each foundered. These also involved downplaying relations with traditional and prospective partners, including serious neglect of India in the early part of the Obama presidency. Other challenges to U.S. diplomacy have multiplied manifold since then.

The National Security Agency (NSA) revelations hurt U.S. credibility with its partners. Long-established U.S. ascendancy in the China-Russia-U.S. triangular relationship passed to China. Mr. Obama announced the strategic defeat of al-Qaeda, the same way Mr. George W. Bush had announced success in Iraq, but the rise of the Islamic State shows that Islamists are arguably stronger and more spread out than at any other time in history. Relative neglect, fear of over-commitment, and waging the wrong wars with the wrong local partners have led to the crises in Iraq and Syria and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. With added tensions in Ukraine and the East and South China Seas, the environment for rebuilding India-U.S. relations has become even more complex.

Mr. Obama has concentrated more power in his hands than any other American President, making him one of the most centralising Presidents ever. His successive National Security Advisors, James Jones, Tom Donilon and Susan Rice, did not have independent opinions. Only Mr. Donilon among them had a sense of the strategic nature of India-U.S. relations, in which none of the NSAs was invested. Indians reciprocated with similar laissez-faire. Mr. Obama’s visit to India in November 2010, when he welcomed “India’s emergence as a major regional and global power” and affirmed U.S. interest in “India’s rise, its economic prosperity, and its security,” did not lead to an upgraded relationship. Indeed, there was a marked regression since then.

The unfinished agenda

Is good chemistry between the two leaders cause to celebrate? Not by itself. The divergences in outlook that come from the geostrategic placement of India and the U.S., their historic and social evolution, and economic asymmetry do not make it easy to work together.

Moreover, tending the full spectrum relationship between them, spanning counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, defence, energy, entertainment, education, finance, science and technology, trade and tourism, besides guidance from the leadership, requires considerable investment of time and skills, conspicuous by its absence.

What India and the U.S. need to do together is clear; they simply have been unable to do it. The areas of strategic convergence are known. A growing, pluralistic and democratic India is a constructive force in Asia and the world. India needs U.S. investments and technology. The U.S. needs Indian markets and skilled service providers. The gap between promise and performance of the two countries lies in the mutual timidity of their governments in treading the path signposted after considerable effort. Roadblocks need to be removed by resolving differences, for which both sides must sit and talk.

The renewal of the 2005 Framework for the India-U.S. Defense Relationship is a reminder that in the 10 years of its operation, nothing whatsoever was done to “increase opportunities for technology transfer, collaboration, co-production, and research and development.” India’s contingent and reactive defence policy, including on procurement, compromises security and is a drain on national resources. India has stepped up buying of U.S. weapons; but has not so far co-developed or built them.

Similarly, the absence of energetic pursuit of U.S. support for “a reformed UN Security Council with India as a permanent member,” and the U.S. resolve “to continue work towards India’s phased entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group” — almost exactly the same words used when Mr. Obama had visited India in 2010 — persuade many Indians that inaction on these commitments might be a sign of equivocation.

Mr. Modi was well briefed in addressing areas of contention, including climate change and World Trade Organization (WTO) issues, indeed, a range of bread-and-butter issues of concern to both countries on which equitable solutions must be explored. In his self-confident interactions on these, he showed his hand on what gives and what does not.

On agricultural subsidies, he put across that a large and populous country like India needs flexibility to take care of food security, rural employment, and livelihood concerns through continued domestic support. At the joint press briefing with Mr. Obama, he made public advocacy for “continued openness and ease of access for Indian services companies in the U.S. market.”

A contact group was set up for the full implementation of the India-U.S. civil nuclear cooperation agreement, as also an annual high-level Intellectual Property (IP) Working Group, with an “appropriate decision-making” mandate as part of the Trade Policy Forum. Mr. Modi deflected pressure to give up on India’s pro-public health patent protection policy that enables the supply of high-quality, life-saving medicines worldwide. When pharma sector CEOs spoke of their apprehensions about India’s intellectual property rights (IPR) regime, he reportedly told them that India needed affordable medicines, and that their firms needed to “devote the right energy” to R&D for new drug development, “not just by changing the formulation of a drug to sustain a patent, but by inventing things that make a difference to mankind.”

Looking ahead

At the very least, this visit restored a degree of confidence to a neglected relationship. It has prepared the ground for a lift to bilateral ties, while ensuring in the meanwhile that India and the U.S. get on with operationalising what they can from our multilayered agenda, bridging differences on managing the global commons, resolving bilateral roadblocks on commercial exchanges and investments, building cooperation in science and technology and defence production, and forging a closer strategic partnership in the Indo-Pacific region.

Notwithstanding shared values and interests, the real traction in India-U.S. relations lies ahead, perhaps with a new U.S. President just over two years away, as India begins to realise its economic potential and augments all aspects of what the Chinese describe as comprehensive national power.

(Jayant Prasad has served as India’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria, Nepal, and the U.N. Conference on Disarmament and currently is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.)

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