Putting people before politicians

At the U.N., in Central Park and at Madison Square Garden, Mr. Modi has reached a population as important as the one in Washington. The key now lies in nurturing this relationship.

September 30, 2014 12:40 am | Updated April 20, 2016 06:36 am IST

X-FACTOR: What commentators perhaps fail to appreciate is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears more interested in people than in politicians. Picture shows him speaking at Central Park, in New York.

X-FACTOR: What commentators perhaps fail to appreciate is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears more interested in people than in politicians. Picture shows him speaking at Central Park, in New York.

In the summer of 1949, a few months before Jawaharlal Nehru was to make his maiden visit to the United States, American and British diplomats were nervous to say the least. As Sir Oliver Franks, the British ambassador to the United States wrote: “No one in Washington had apparently been considering Nehru’s visit as anything but one of courtesy.” After all, President Harry S. Truman found the then 59-year-old Prime Minister “irritating.” India was not important. It was, according to Truman, a nation more associated with people sitting on “hot coals” and found “bathing in the Ganges.”

That an Indian Prime Minister such as Narendra Modi would one day address a crowd of at least 6,000 “global” citizens in the heart of New York was unthinkable, let alone plausible. That he would be compared to the likes of a rock star addressing thousands of Indian-Americans in Madison Square Gardens would be near heresy if suggested at the time of Truman for whom there was something distinctly “ancient” about the recently decolonised nation. Reflecting on the past may in part help frame our understanding of what visits such as this mean in the present. To be sure, the fact that Prime Minister Modi’s speech at Madison Square Gardens was accompanied by a film on the Ganges is a karmic reminder of an ancient civilisation that has a deeper place in America than the likes of Truman could have ever envisaged.

Discovering the U.S.

India’s first Prime Minister did not make the journey to win over the likes of Truman, but to win the hearts of an American public that had supported Indian independence. He was soon dubbed the “hope of Asia.” This was, as Nehru told the U.S. House of Representatives, “a voyage of discovery.” Speaking to audiences at press clubs, universities, and America’s oversized financial organisations, the message was simple: “self help,” as he often argued, was the “first condition of success.” Indeed, Nehru’s Harrow and Cambridge schooling may have led him to wince in the company of bankers more than willing to talk about hard cash, but it was the empathy and enthusiasm of the people of America that remained with him for long.

The relationship with the U.S. has clearly transformed. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had little hesitation in talking numbers and cementing a nuclear agreement with a country whose former President, George W. Bush, he clearly admired. Yet, six and a half decades after Nehru made “self-help” his rallying cry, official and industrial America finds itself irritated once more. This time, it has less to do with the persona of a visiting leader, and much more with the fact that the ideals of “self-help” have been found meshed in what American pundits dub as India’s curious (read impossible) approach to regulation. Whether it has to do with intellectual property, international trade and subsidies, defence-related investments, or nuclear damages and liabilities, India’s “sluggish” attitude requires a reset. The hope, analysts forcefully argue, is for Mr. Modi to establish friendships across America’s political divide. The key, Washington’s think tankers suggest, lie in forging a bond with U.S. President Barack Obama. But is this what Mr. Modi’s visit is really about?

When Obama and Modi meet

In reality, this visit has much more in common with Nehru’s “voyage” and his ambition to discover the U.S. than with substantials to do with defence, education, nuclear cooperation and the narrower aspects of a bilateral relationship. What commentators perhaps fail to appreciate is that Mr. Modi appears more interested in people than in politicians. The meeting with Mr. Obama followed by those with senior officials is in fact likely to do little in the immediate term. Take for instance the hyperbole over the Nuclear Liability Bill passed in 2010. American interlocutors argue that the meeting in the White House is likely to push the Indian government to revisit Sections of the bill — 17(b) and 46 — that were added at the behest of the Bharatiya Janata Party whilst in opposition. These sections, introduced in the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, allow legal action to be taken against suppliers by Indian civil courts in cases of nuclear damage. Corporate U.S. and those invested in the potential for nuclear trade — such as the U.S.-India Business Council — revel at the prospects of legislative change.

Yet, this is unlikely. On September 8, when asked about the future of the civil nuclear agreement, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj put the matter in perspective saying: “When an agreement is done, it is done with the country, not with the government. So those agreements we get in inheritance.” Ms. Swaraj’s terse answer should be taken at face value.

What the leaders meeting in the Oval Office may in fact accomplish is the conveyance of an Indian advance, one which cannot as easily be changed according to the wishes and fancies of Washington’s corporate tsars. This of course does not mean that Mr. Obama might find in the Prime Minister a statesman he cannot work with; rather that meetings such as these do more for setting the scene as it were. Following Truman’s first meeting with Nehru, the U.S. President confessed that he found the “Asian leader difficult.” In turn, Nehru found Truman “condescending.” Yet, they worked collectively to find a solution to the crisis in Korea a year or so down the line.

A changed President

Apart from trade-related matters, two issues bound to be discussed in detail include international terrorism and relations between India and Pakistan. With regards to the latter, Mr. Modi is likely to encounter a better-informed and more sensitive — from an Indian perspective — President, who in the past uncannily exerted pressure on India to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan. Attempts to appoint an American “envoy” to shape a settlement backfired. Notwithstanding Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech at the United Nations on September 26 which was designed to push India to hold a “plebiscite,” Mr. Obama is unlikely to succumb to such pressure tactics. Rather, Mr. Modi will find a changed President, someone genuinely more open to the idea of non-interference.

The Prime Minister’s plea at the U.N. to adopt a ‘Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism’ will draw greater attention. At a time when the U.S. is looking to broaden partnerships in the Middle East to combat groups like the Islamic State, Mr. Modi’s use of tough rhetoric will please many. Yet, expecting India to join a global, or western-led, fight in Iraq and elsewhere is hardly possible. This will be more an issue of widespread disquiet, allowing an exchange of views on an issue that equally concerns both nations. In 2003, Indian and American deputies spent many hours discussing the likelihood of India’s intervention in Iraq. It led to nothing substantive, but the discussions themselves, as Donald Rumseld then argued, “helped to better understand each other.”

In essence, this is what a dinner with the Obamas and meetings today will seek to accomplish. Whether a Joint Statement at the end of the summit is populated with five or 15 agreements is less important at the moment. Potentially, for Mr. Modi, the aim of the visit has been partially accomplished. Whether at the U.N., in Central Park, or at Madison Square Garden, he has reached a population much larger than and as important as those in Washington. The key now lies in nurturing this relationship. Appointing a principal — like Atal Bihari Vajpayee did with Jaswant Singh — will go a long way in converting sentiment and the enthusiasm for discovery to results.

(Rudra Chaudhuri is the author of Forged in Crisis: India and the United States since 1947, New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2014.)

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