By all accounts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s five-day visit to the UN and the US was successful. He re-connected with an America which was beginning to put India on the backburner, distracted as it is with myriad crises in West Asia, Ukraine, Europe, etc. Besides, rising domestic fissures have rendered President Obama isolationist, unwilling to play the role of an active global cop any longer. That inward-looking liberal Obama, against his will, is now obliged to douse terrorist fires in West Asia and impose sanctions against Russia for its perfidious deeds in Ukraine is another matter.
In this backdrop, if the visit of Modi, the newly-minted Indian Prime Minister who comes across as a breath of fresh air after his listless and inert predecessor, succeeded in rekindling warmth in Indo-US ties the credit must go to the two leaders, one, as the cliché goes, the head of the world’s largest democracy and the other of the ‘oldest’ democracy. Admittedly, by way of tangibles, the gains from the visit might still appear illusory. But ask your neighbours. You have to be on talking terms before you can establish real friendship and parley that into something more concrete later. Similarly, the Modi visit buried the last remnants of the unfortunate controversy over the gratuitous refusal of a visa to him. An excess of the US system, which often tends to act autonomous of the federal executive, the visa issue was dead once it appeared to the US that Modi was set to become prime minister. Modi was graceful in not embarrassing his hosts by raking up the issue which his domestic detractors had flogged no end in the hope of putting life into their moribund campaign. Indeed, there was some irony in Modi offering on-the-spot visa to Americans on arrival in India.
As for his address at the annual General Assembly meeting of the world body, the Indian leader pressed all the right buttons, calling for a restructuring of the body to meet the altered geopolitical situation in the 21st century. He also dismissed in a mere sentence Nawaz Sharif’s pro forma reference to Kashmir, stressing bilateralism in all such disputes. But the real stuff was on the Washington leg of the visit. Here again, the atmospherics were great, his hosts treated him with great warmth and respect, with Obama himself giving Modi a walking tour of his iconic quarters. Yes, there are a few wrinkles in the relationship which could be removed early before the strategic and defence ties gain momentum. These concerned the niggardliness of the US in giving visas to Indian tech workers, in being unduly harsh on our pharmaceutical companies, in seeking to impose harsher conditions for reducing India’s growing carbon print. But the US wanted India to reconsider its stand on trade facilitation agreement which was stalled at the recent WTO meet due to our concern about implementing fully our food security scheme.
Of course, India would like the US to lean on Pakistan for the latter to shut the tap of terrorism against this country. Modi, in fact, voiced the concern that the anticipated withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan could lead the ISI-linked Taliban to turn its gaze on India, a fact duly acknowledged by the US. It is significant that the Americans have now agreed to maintain a small contingent of some ten thousand troops in Afghanistan after the pull-out later next year. The two leaders also found convergence in emphasising the status quo in maritime and territorial disputes now being raked up by an aggressive China to rile its neighbours. Of course, there was no obvert talk of a strategic or defence partnership, but it is clear that there was commonality of views on the Chinese expansionism. Unlike the recent exchanges with the heads of government of China and Japan, no specific sums were bandied about for investment in India, though the theme of US business that India should be more receptive, more welcoming was constantly sought to be hammered home by Modi’s hosts.
Whether or not the hackneyed phrase about the two countries being natural allies was thrown about on the visit, the fact is that for a vast majority of middle-class Indians there is a special fondness for the `land of the free.’ With the image-shattering protests in Hong Kong against China’s plan to subvert the promise of `one country, two systems’ in that oasis of peace and prosperity, a window of opportunity might have further opened for most countries feeling uneasy about a militarily and economically aggressive China to cooperate so that Beijing stops playing the global bully. Notably, even the tiny Burma and a number of African countries now feel so smothered by the tightening Chinese embrace that they are looking for new friends. If India plays its cards well, as it seems to be doing under Modi, and if the Americans play ball with it, as they seem to have assured Modi on his visit, an altered geopolitical scenario free from the threats and bullying of the Chinese dragon wouldn’t be hard to contemplate. Yes, the jaw-jaw between Modi and Obama needs to be followed up by an active engagement between the respective policy sherpas for the visit to yield concrete gains. At least, the promise of a warmer relationship has been made.