It was disconcerting to see the BJP organise a celebratory show outside Delhi airport to receive Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a ‘successful tour’ of the United States which ‘enhanced India’s prestige’ in the world. The posters described Modi as ‘Vishwapriya’ (a leader who is dear to the world), a slight modification from the ‘Vishwaguru’ chorus of television channels during the visit. It would have been embarrassing for the Prime Minister and the diplomatic establishment as they know there was nothing in the trip to trigger this song-&-dance ‘tamasha’.
While it is difficult to count the substantive takeaways, the trip wasn’t very successful even in terms of atmospherics and the feel-good factor. The chemistry between American President Joe Biden and Modi was indisputably far inferior to what we have seen with his predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump. While the shadow of Modi’s indiscreet campaign in favour of Trump might have been lurking in the minds on the both sides, the Biden administration’s emphasis on democratic values and human rights also created abnormal pressure on our Prime Minister.
While US Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been critical of Modi’s policies in the past, bluntly articulated her concerns on democracy being in peril, Biden also chose to offer a tutorial on Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of non-violence and tolerance. Make no mistake, both Biden and Harris were giving voice to the unease about the Modi government’s majoritarian agenda. There were protests outside White House and the hotel where Modi stayed and, unlike the Trump administration, Biden wasn’t willing to turn a blind eye to the feedback from the ground. The cold reception that the Prime Minister got at the White House clearly indicated Biden’s ears were still burning with Modi’s avoidable utterances of “Abki Bar, Trump Sarkar”.
When Rajiv Gandhi visited the United States, he wasn’t as big a leader like Modi who has received two massive mandates after having been the chief minister of an important state for 13 years but he received a grand welcome from the then President Ronald Reagan. This visit might have helped Modi break the ice with the Biden-Harris duo but will never be remembered for personal warmth or any tangible political success.
More than Modi’s demonstrable softness for Trump, this visit took place against the grim backdrop of unseemly developments in Afghanistan. No matter how emphatically the Americans reiterated the commitment to strategic partnership with India, there is no denying the fact that the Biden administration overlooked India’s core concerns in Afghanistan and handed over strategic advantages to Pakistan. While Modi couldn’t have been too aggressive and blunt on this aspect, Biden too must have been restrained by his helplessness in Afghanistan.
The decision to leave Afghanistan in the hands of a terrorist militia which is being manipulated and controlled by the Pakistani army will have serious implications for India’s national security. It is difficult to guess whether Modi firmly conveyed this message to Biden. Without any concrete assurance on this front, India has no reason to celebrate. The Americans talked of a ‘shared fight’ against ‘global terrorism’ but that that’s old rhetoric, absolutely insufficient under the new circumstances in India’s neighbourhood.
Worse, Biden took care to undermine the Quad (a group comprising Australia, Japan, India and the US) by announcing the AUKUS (Australia, the UK and the US) just before Modi’s first face-to-face meeting with him. Whatever be the explanations, the Quad lost its significance, and its agenda – of non-strategic issues – clearly proved that. Modi certainly hadn’t bargained for this, having strained ties with China by joining the US-led grouping. Foreign policy experts would know India has a difficult balancing act to do in near future, delicately repositioning itself keeping in view the enlightened national interests both in terms of trade and security concerns.
The perception that Modi’s unique foreign policy style had paid rich dividends stands seriously challenged now and that is not a happy situation at all. The belief that India is a rising global power will have to be reinforced with deft diplomatic moves and strategic vision in the coming years. The BJP too would do better to avoid using foreign policy as a fodder for domestic political warfare. The world will laugh at our inability to read the writing on the wall; in no other country do ruling parties erupt into such celebration on the return of their leaders from a routine address to the United Nations General assembly. Even the address by our Prime Minister this time wasn’t extraordinary and barely evoked any positive response.