Modi scripts new chapter with America
by Sandhya Jain on 07 Oct 2014 7 Comments
Admonitions from professional Cassandras notwithstanding, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a successful visit to the United States. It was the climax of the diplomatic gauntlet he wielded on May 26 when he invited leaders of all SAARC nations, and Mauritius, to attend his swearing-in ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Their arrival (barring Bangladesh Prime Minister who sent an emissary) set the stage for what is now the signature tune of India’s foreign relations - no unhappy baggage. The cancellation of foreign secretary level talks with Pakistan conforms to this prism – don’t repeat old irritants, an error Islamabad has since admitted.


The United States is too important for India to have indifferent ties with; Mr Modi accepted President Barack Obama’s invitation with alacrity. Speaking to CNN before the visit, he said in previous centuries India and China enjoyed parallel growth, without corrosive competition. On China’s assertiveness in the East China and South China Seas, he said Beijing’s emphasis on economic development shows that it does not wish to be isolated (he clearly intends to continue dialogue with the Asian giant). He dodged the Ukraine bullet by lamenting the death of innocents in a plane accident (read incident). Undoubtedly President Putin will receive a warm welcome in New Delhi this month.


The Prime Minister’s international outreach included a memorable meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his sole bilateral outside of South Asia. He has so far visited Bhutan, Nepal and Japan, and received Chinese President Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad and Delhi; the stand-off at the line of actual control was resolved peacefully while he was in America.


At the UN General Assembly, Mr Modi expressed willingness to engage in serious dialogue with Pakistan, but the latter must ensure a terror-free environment and not raise bilateral issues at the UN. Pointing to the rising tide of terrorism worldwide, he urged adoption of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism. Berating forums based on wealth (G-7, G-20), he said the world cannot afford the politics of zero sum game. The UN, particularly the Security Council, must be more democratic and participative to reflect the realities of the 21st century. Stressing his developmental agenda, he said India plans to share technology and capabilities via a free satellite for SAARC nations.


At Madison Square Garden, where around 50 US Senate and House Members and New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio appeared onstage with him, Mr Modi exhorted the Indian diaspora to renew links with the mother country. For the centenary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India (2015), he urged them to join the Make in India, Swachh Bharat, and Clean Ganga initiatives. He mentioned his dream of “Housing for All” by 2022 AD. This high octane show was pure Gujarati business acumen - PIOs can be a major source of funds for India’s development, better than international aid agencies or foreign direct investment (FDIs).


Mr Modi offered easier travel to India via lifelong visas and merger of the Person of Indian Origin and Overseas Citizens of India schemes. But, given our experience of persons like David Coleman Headley, it may be in order to nuance the promise of long term tourist visas and visa-on-arrival for American citizens. Care is necessary to ensure that visas are not misused for missionary activity among vulnerable sections of society.


In his meeting with the influential Council on Foreign Relations, the Prime Minister reiterated his stand on the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and his intention to achieve a balanced economy with agriculture, manufacturing and services having roughly 30 per cent share of GDP, each.


There was a surfeit of optics and symbolism, evidenced even in the gifts exchanged. Most notable was President Obama escorting Mr Modi around the Martin Luther King Memorial, and the latter’s homage at the 9/11 Memorial. Likely presidential aspirants - former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley - met Mr Modi, a barometer of his rising status. Besides some major speeches and interactions with smaller groups, he had nearly two dozen bilateral meetings with US officials, top corporate leaders, political and civic leaders, including Jewish and Sikh community leaders, and the director of the National Cancer Institute.


The two sides issued a vision document; a comprehensive joint statement, and Mr Modi and Mr Obama penned an article for Washington Post. Yet actual movement on the ground is likely to be carefully calibrated; no big deals were announced though both sides agreed on issues like defence and energy.


Mr Modi refused to compromise on nuclear liability or India’s stand on food security at the WTO. References to health collaboration to tackle challenges like Ebola, cancer, tuberculosis, malaria and dengue could impact India’s drug pricing and production policies, but the visit did not see any surrender on the subject of pharma patents. Contentious issues have been deferred and cooperation secured for smart cities (Ajmer, Visakhapatnam, Allahabad), and $1 billion to fund India’s transition to a low carbon and climate resilient economy. Washington agreed to back India’s membership of the Missile Technology Control Regime and Nuclear Suppliers Group, thus bringing India into the global nuclear mainstream.


The joint statement noted the “rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes” in the South China Sea, though no country was named. Since then, the presence of Hong Kong churches (with historical links to Britain and the West) in the anti-China protests would have alerted Beijing of the need to mend fences with non-hostile neighbours. Notice was taken of the situation in Iraq and Syria, and of the need to cooperate in Afghanistan.


The summit’s big takeaway was the agreement to cooperate to dismantle terror groups such as al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D-Company, and Haqqani network, along with their safe havens and financial and tactical support networks. Washington promptly imposed sanctions on Pakistan-based Harkat ul Mujahideen leader Fazlur Rehman Khalil and two others and froze their assets for providing funds to the LeT, which targets India. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval is continuing the discussions, though India has so far refrained from joining the anti-ISIS coalition.


In this regard, Mr Modi revealed his thinking when he told the UN General Assembly that countries sending forces for peace keeping missions must have a say in the objectives of the missions. In other words, India will avoid military camps but will pursue a higher international profile under the aegis of the United Nations.  

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