India’s Narendra Modi resets compass for post-Obama America

Other than the two great Hindu festivals of Holi in spring season and Diwali in the autumn, one occasion the Indian elites are sure to burst into sheer ecstasy is when a summit meeting takes place with the United States.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister India Narendra Modi shake hands before their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Indian Prime Minister India Narendra Modi shake hands before their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington

The media elites have been beside themselves with joy and excitement this week, old war horses have come out of the woodwork and everywhere the talk is about a new ‘symphony’ in the US-relationship – ‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive / But to be young was very heaven’, as the English poet William Wordsworth wrote.

To be sure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US on June 6-7 has ended in a trail of media hype. But then, a gnawing doubt lingers: Is the hype real or orchestrated by the establishment? The tell-tale signs are far too many.

Surprisingly, in the run-up to the visit, there was nothing of the usual rhetoric at the official or Track II levels. Even the seasoned choir boys kept their fingers crossed.

This was a visit that was virtually imposed on the Barack Obama administration by the Indian side, which Washington grudgingly accepted amidst heavy preoccupations.

Of course, American diplomacy, especially President Barack Obama’s, always extracts something out of even the most banal event to advance the US’ interests or regional and global strategies. And Modi is the leader of an emerging power.

The Indians sought a ‘state visit’ and settled for what was on offer – a ‘working visit’. Obama received Modi for an hour’s conversation after which they split and rejoined later in an expanded format for a ‘working lunch’. There was no joint press conference; a drab 3,785-word essay substituted as ‘joint statement’. The American media did not even seem to notice that Modi was in town.

Curiously, no sooner was the ‘working lunch’ over than Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights of the US Congress held a public hearing on India’s human rights situation, especially the intolerance toward religious minorities by the Hindu nationalist groups (who are part of India’s ruling elites).

Modi has been reminded that in the enlightened American opinion, he still carries the Albatross of the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the chief minister of the state.

In fact, in the weeks before Modi arrived in Washington, US Congress held hearings where senator after senator harshly criticised the human rights situation in India. Interestingly, though, they voiced in the same breath their overall disillusionment with Modi for not having lived up to the American expectations of him being a ‘business-friendly’ reformist prime minister when he came to power two years ago.

Possibly, a dialectic has appeared that may continue as long as Modi remains in power – on the one hand, pressure on Modi government’s record on tolerance toward Christians and Muslims, and, on the other hand, his utility to American business interests.

But then, Modi is a tough politician too, who has a brilliant record of exploiting situations and interlocutors ruthlessly to his advantage.

Thus, he ignored the less-than-exuberant welcome extended to him at the White House and instead chose to turn a customary event at the Capitol Hill – addressing a joint session of the Congress – into the high noon of his entire visit.

For Modi, every visit abroad is intended to boost his image in the domestic audience in India. His well-drafted speech in the US Congress drew polite ovations from the US lawmakers, and the grand spectacle may have gone down well in the uninformed Indian opinion marking Modi as a colossus bestriding the world stage.

However, the actual output of Modi’s visit is very meagre – almost zero. The US-Indian relationship is far from fulfilling its raison d’etre of piloting the transformation of India, where over 500 million people live at sub-human level.

This visit too heavily focused on the sale of American weaponry to India and the issues relating to market access for American companies.

There was no ‘takeaway’ for Modi’s development agenda, which places heavy emphasis on the manufacturing sector and infrastructure development, which could generate jobs. India needs to create around 12-15 million new jobs per month.

Alas, the bureaucracy in New Delhi navigates India’s ties with the US, and geopolitics has come to be the leitmotif of the relationship, the rapidly developing mil-to-mil ties being its principal catalyst.

Obama has floated a futuristic idea that there should be direct interaction between Washington and India’s state chief ministers, but it is highly unlikely that the bureaucracy in New Delhi will easily abdicate.

At any rate, during Modi’s visit, Washington announced its decision to accord India the status of a ‘Major Defense Partner’ on par with its allies, which in plain terms means easing of restrictions on transfer to India of advanced weaponry with cutting-edge technology.

But Modi’s pet project ‘Make in India’ aspires for the co-designing and co-production of weapon systems and the US so far has remained extremely wary of wetting its toes.

The rapidly developing military ties have nonetheless generated the optics of a US-Indian alliance in the making in global politics, especially in Asia with China in the cross-hairs.

A perception has gained ground that Modi is collaring India to ‘bandwagon’ with the US’ re-balance in Asia with an agenda aimed at the containment of China.

This perception gained ground following Obama’s state visit to India in January last year when the two leaders issued a Joint Vision Statement on Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

However, interestingly, the joint statement issued in Washington after Modi’s visit on Tuesday omits any reference to the South China Sea.

Such ambivalence is of course in line with the recent trend of India preferring to keep its head below the parapet on the hot issue of China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea with its neighbors or its rising tensions with the US.

Do we see a ‘calibrated disengagement’ by India from the American embrace – with Washington’s tacit acquiescence, perhaps – so that Chinese sensitivities are not ruffled and the momentum of the Sino-Indian normalization as such does not get affected? The possibility cannot be ruled out.

Succinctly put, India, like most Asian countries, is hedging – equally, India remains reluctant to undertake joint patrols with the American Navy in the South China Sea.

Suffice it to say, it is premature to speak of a US-Indian alliance yet and it seems illogical that Modi could be leading his country into a matrix, from which in plain daylight many of America’s traditional allies are seeking an exit route – Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, etc.

Won’t Modi know that India has a transactional relationship with the US where at best there is convergence on many issues – nothing more, nothing less?

Modi is a genius in doing cold-blooded cherry picking when it comes to almost all his known relationships. A careful reading of Modi’s speech at the US Congress and his entire performance at Capitol Hill, including his body language, tends to suggest that his eyes are already cast at America’s political horizons.

Obama may have found a match in Modi. Indeed, Modi did splendidly well for himself by claiming a special affinity with ‘Friend Barack’.

Obama probably understood it, too. At any rate, the New York Times carried a special report on the eve of Modi’s arrival in the White House to disclaim that there could be any such affinity conceivable on Obama’s part, at least.

Modi is a master of political theatre, and he knows only too well that euphoria in politics is mostly contrived – and inevitably ephemeral. He has used this visit primarily to reset his compass for the post-Obama era.

These are uncertain times and Modi has worked hard to preserve a bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill over the imperatives of the US-Indian relationship that could withstand even a political earthquake – known as Donald Trump.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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