Modi’s outreach to U.S. more than pageantry

Though there is the temptation to view the outcome of the Indian prime minister’s recent five-day visit to the United States through the prism of “concrete deliverables,” Narendra Modi’s trip has energized a relationship that had been drifting for the past several years. But it has not won universal praise.

India’s Congress party has attacked the prime minister for reducing diplomacy to “event management” and trying to create an atmosphere through “cheerleaders.” Modi’s critics are also attacking him for getting nothing substantive out of the visit as if the only purpose of high-level foreign visits is to bring back “presents” for the country.

The differences between the U.S. and India remain wide on a range of key issues. American businesses have been concerned about high tariffs, retrospective tax policies, intellectual property rights protection and foreign direct investment restrictions.

Indian concerns have revolved around visa barriers and technology transfer restrictions. Discussions on a Bilateral Investment Treaty, which aims to increase U.S.-India trade to $500 billion, have failed to move forward.

India is worried about the impending U.S. departure from Afghanistan, and the U.S. views India as a less than helpful partner in managing crises from Ukraine to the Middle East.

India has refused to lend support to American efforts against Islamic State. This narrative would suggest Modi’s visit was more about appearances than anything else, a point made by the prime minister’s critics at home.

But this would be a myopic view of what Modi managed to accomplish in his trip to the U.S. He has made a case for India on the global stage in a way that has not been made before. What Modi has done is something very fundamental and potentially transformative. He is making a case for India on the global platform by giving Delhi a uniquely Indian idiom.

Here’s a politician who has risen through the rank and file of Indian polity through sheer hard work and his outlook toward the world has a distinctly Indian flavor. When Modi gifts the Bhagavad Gita to foreign dignitaries, when he talks of an International Yoga Day, when he openly talks of the Indian festivals period of regeneration or when he only sips warm water at a White House dinner, Modi seems to be making a case to the wider world that India should be considered on her own terms. He’s a supremely confident leader of the world’s largest democracy after winning one of the biggest political mandates in recent history. And he is not shy of leveraging it to India’s advantage.

Modi has articulated a vision of U.S.-India ties as a relationship between equals: If America has a unique ability to absorb people from all parts of the world, argues Modi, Indians too have a unique ability to become an integral part of the various societies to which they migrate and contribute to them in substantive ways.

Modi’s self-assurance, which is rooted in his pride in Indian culture, also allowed him to win over the young cosmopolitan crowd in New York’s Central Park with as much ease as the nonresident Indians yearning for global recognition of their culture and nation.

When Modi says that, by 2022, he will ensure that every Indian has a home to live in, daunting as it may sound, many believe him. With his unprecedented outreach to the Indian American community, he is trying to instill in them a sense of pride and confidence so that they become a force that India will be able to leverage in the future.

If he tried to galvanize the Indian corporate sector to help him realize his “First Develop India” vision, he tried to rally the American corporate sector by underlining his determination to use the recent cancelation of coal block allocation by India’s highest court “into an opportunity to move forward and clean up the past.” It is Modi’s confidence in India’s economic future and the American corporate sector’s confidence in Modi’s stewardship of the Indian economy that has already resulted in investments worth $41 billion into India over the next 3 years, and that’s only 20 percent of what is expected from the U.S.

His riposte to Pakistan at the United Nations, asking Islamabad to create an “appropriate environment” for serious bilateral dialogue “without the shadow of terrorism” was firm but statesmanlike. Even his message to the U.N. was tough, suggesting the imperative of reforms for strengthening the global body so that it doesn’t become “irrelevant.”

U.S. President Barack Obama has described America’s relationship with India as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, one that will be vital to U.S. strategic interests in Asia-Pacific and across the globe.” The relationship has been losing traction in recent years under a rudderless government in Delhi and an Obama administration consumed by multiple crises around the world.

Modi’s visit to Washington has injected new life into U.S.-India relations. During his visit, the two nations renewed the defense deal 10 years and reiterated their commitment to civil nuclear cooperation, acknowledging for the first time that there were concerns that needed to be addressed.

With regard to India’s veto of the Trade Facilitation Agreement at the World Trade Organization, both sides now concede that as they move forward, they will need to take into consideration the other’s point of view.

Bilateral counter-terror and intelligence ties have taken a leap with the reference in the joint statement to the “joint and concerted efforts” for dismantling safe havens of terrorists and criminal networks such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohamed, and D-company, Haqqani Network and al-Qaida.

There were no headline grabbing announcements, but policies do not get transformed with a single visit. Sustained followup action and resources are required to have a long-term impact.

During his visit to the U.S., Modi has laid the foundation for some long-term changes in the way India is likely to conduct its dealings with the world in coming years. And that is much more than mere pomp and pageantry.

Harsh V. Pant is a professor of international relations at King’s College London, and an adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in the U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. His research focuses on Asian security.

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