From visa denial to red carpet in US Congress

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l2016060884493The fourth visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States in the last two years was aimed at consolidating and providing a boost to the ties between the two countries. After wowing the listeners at the Madison Square Garden during one of his previous visits, his address to the joint session of the US Congress, this time, turned out to be a big hit.

It is a stark irony that the country that had denied him a visa for several years is now laying out the red carpet for him. During his flawless 45 minutes address to the joint session, he received at least seven standing ovations and the US law makers clapped for him no less than 64 times. He not only took up serious issues like terrorism and economy but peppered his speech with humour and took pot shots at our neighbour for nurturing terrorists. Although the terrorism’s shadow, he said, is spread across the world, “it is incubated in India’s neighbourhood”, without naming Pakistan.

While he called for “shedding hesitations of history”, he described the US as an “indispensable partner” emphasising the need for mutual trust and partnership. He also made a subtle reference to the mutual benefits of sharing technology and creation of jobs. Equally significant was his reference to India’s strong economy and annual growth rate of 7.6 per cent. He emphasised that it was creating new opportunities for mutual prosperity “while transformative American technologies in Indian and growing investment by Indian companies in the US have a positive impact on the lives of people”.

Modi’s address to the joint session of the US Congress was all the more significant because it provided him with an opportunity to engage with the leaders from both sides of the spectrum who would be playing a crucial role even after the election of the new President and his administration.

Earlier, during his packed schedule in the US, Modi had elaborate talks with Barack Obama on a whole gamut of issues. The lengthy joint statement issued at the conclusion of the meeting referred to several important issues. One of the most important was that the US would facilitate technology sharing with India at the same level as it does with its closest allies. It includes the provision that India would receive license-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies.

The talks took the nuclear deal a step ahead with the US to begin preparatory work on six reactors and also India’s bid to join Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Incidentally, the US had helped set up India’s first nuclear reactor at Tarapore more than four decades ago. The long nuclear freeze enforced by the US after India tested its own peaceful nuclear explosion in 1974 led to a major setback. Under the US’s internal laws and the NSG regulations, India was denied not only nuclear technology and materials but the ban extended to all major advanced technologies including space and cyber technologies. The six reactors to be set up in Andhra Pradesh would be the first in the series of new proposals.

The other significant area of cooperation that received a boost was in the sector of defence. The formal declaration of India as a “major defence partner” shall go a long way to open up vistas which had been lying closed for decades. The process had started in 2005 when a 10-year agreement on defence cooperation was signed. However, the proposal did not make much progress on the ground and the two countries have decided to pick up threads and take it up forward. As per the joint declaration, the US shall give India the same level of access to defence technologies as it grants to its closest allies and partners. With India as a major market for defence related products, this would open up huge possibilities for the two countries.

Yet another significant, though lacking in details, declaration pertains to the identification of “specific new areas of collaboration”. Experts and diplomats are of the view are that this refers to new counter-terrorism measures in view of the increasing menace of terrorism.

Referring to India’s wider economic aspirations, the joint statement only said : “The United States welcomes India’s interest in joining the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum” but fell short of any concrete steps to achieve that goal. Thus, the visit, the last state visit by any head of state before Obama bows out, did not yield the desired results in the sphere of economy. It was obvious that President Obama would like to leave his stamp on building up relations between the two countries and Modi could have pushed the envelope to make more substantial progress.

That, however, does not take away the credit for his impeccable address to the US Congress. Before ending his address he declared that the “constrains of the past are behind us” and that “there is a new symphony in play”. Undoubtedly there has been a substantial change for the positive in the relationship between the two countries over the last two years during which Modi and Obama have met at least seven times. It is easily the highest number of times that any Indian Prime Minister and US president would have met during negotiations such a short span. The two developed a good rapport and informal conversations helped iron out some of the differences.

This is not to say that Modi’s predecessors had not contributed enough to improve ties between the two countries.

The first prime minister of the country Jawaharlal Nehru was the also the first premier to visit the US as a state guest. Breaking all protocol, the then US president John F Kennedy had not only received him at the airport but he also had climbed up his aircraft to receive him at its door. Nehru had initiated the nuclear cooperation with the US and was mainly instrumental in setting up the country’s first nuclear plant. Nehru and Kennedy had also embarked upon defence cooperation between the two countries which, however, ended the 1971 war. It took quite some time for breaking the ice between the two countries and significant contributions were made by Rajiv Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao. Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh.

Prior to Modi, the US Congress was also addressed by Nehru in 1949, Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, Narasimha Rao in 1994, Vajpayee in 2000 and Manmohan Singh in 2005. Perhaps Modi received the maximum applause and standing ovations during his speech but he felt short of the level of the statesman. While he referred to the contributions in building up ties between India and the US to his party’s Vajpayee, he made no reference to the other great leaders who had made significant contributions. This gives credence to the criticism that he continues to remain in election mode even when he is abroad rather than take on the role of a statesman prime minister.

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