Prime Minister Narendra Modi joined President Barack Obama at the White House dinner table at the end of his first round of consultations with the who’s who of global politics. He has met the heads of India’s neighbouring countries, attended the BRICS summit, visited Bhutan, Nepal and Japan and played host to the leaders of China and Australia, not to speak of many other leaders, who came calling. In the US, he made a mark at the United Nations with a restrained and forward-looking speech and received a rockstar welcome from Indian-Americans. At his meeting with the CEOs of major US corporations and at the Council on Foreign Relations, he spoke impressively on his economic and international agenda.
The significance of Modi’s meeting at the White House is that it will resuscitate a strategic partnership between India and the US, which had remained on hold for nearly five years on account of paralysis of the government in New Delhi and other preoccupations in the US. Obama cannot but take note of the events of the past three months of Modi’s performance in India and abroad as he sized up the man who has taken up the reins of the largest democracy in the world.
Nothing in Modi’s domestic or foreign policy should be a matter of concern to Obama. Modi’s domestic agenda, consisting of a liberalised and foreign investment- friendly economy and a strengthened defence sector, is conducive to the growth of Indo-US cooperation. His neighbourhood policy and interactions with Japan, China, Russia, Israel and Australia have given no reason for concern for the US. His position on international terrorism that it is a crime against humanity and that the activities of the Islamic State (IS) are a challenge to mankind, against which all people should unite, coincides with Obama’s own worldview. His assertion that terrorism in India is not homegrown and that Indian Muslims will defeat al Qaeda would be much appreciated. On Afghanistan, he hinted at a continuing role for the US in the troubled nation. Therefore, even if all the irritants in Indo-US relations are not removed at their first meeting, the two leaders were sure to hit on well.
Modi’s maiden speech at the UN was striking for its restraint and realism, though his using a prepared text detracted from his oratorical skills. He was firm on Pakistan when he made it clear that India will engage in a dialogue with Pakistan only in an atmosphere free of violence and terrorism. He dealt with the issue of terrorism in the larger context of the world and called upon the UN to adopt a comprehensive convention against terrorism, which India had proposed years ago. He stated that India’s philosophy is one of treating the whole world as a family. He was restrained even when he spoke of the need for expansion of the UN Security Council, as he did so without reiterating India’s own claim. He urged unity in the UN suggesting that, instead of breaking into various groups, it should act as a ‘G-All’.
The unprecedented rockstar reception accorded to Modi at the Madison Square Garden (MSG) reflected the genuine admiration and expectation on the part of the Indian-Americans that he will transform India. They extend support to India selectively. They were critical of Indian policies at times, but fully supportive on other occasions, like at the time of the Indo-US nuclear deal.
The Indian-American population, which is not only prosperous, but also in crucial professions, has considerable influence. That explains why several Senators and Congressmen, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the equivalent body in the House, were at hand to greet Modi. The India Caucus in the Congress and the Friends of India in the Senate are the offshoots of the growing clout of the Indian-Americans in US politics. Obama cannot but take into account the tremendous enthusiasm of the significant 1 percent of his people for the new leader of the largest democracy. The very purpose of the MSG extravaganza was exactly that. Of course, Obama had anticipated the phenomenon when he appointed Nisha Biswal, Arun Kumar and now Richard Verma to take care of crucial positions in the US administration.
The MSG event was more important for its symbolism and implications for the future than for what was said or done there. But Modi could be trusted to say the right things at the right time. He harped basically on three themes — how the overseas Indians, particularly Indian-Americans, have raised India’s standing and prestige abroad, the greatness of India, old and new, and his personal promise to meet the expectations by the sheer dint of hard work.
Modi’s image of the Indians of today playing with the computer mouse rather than the proverbial snake was a compliment not only to India but also to the overseas Indians, who spearheaded the it revolution. He thanked Indian-Americans for keeping awake with bated breath during the General Election, even though they could not participate in the vote. Many had even gone to India to provide support to him, he said.
Modi was at his best in waxing eloquent on India’s heritage and its potential. Mahatma Gandhi created the freedom movement and Modi is determined to create a clean India movement. India is a young nation with an ancient history. With his penchant to create alphabetical soups for all occasions, he spoke of three Ds — democracy, demographic dividend and demand — which would drive India. Having not taken even a “15-minute vacation” since he assumed office, he would work tirelessly to keep up the promise he had given to the people. He invited every one to participate in the ‘Make in India’ programme.
As expected, Modi spoke eloquently about Mangalyaan, the successful Mars mission, which took India to the galaxy of four Mars explorers. In Gujarat, an autorickshaw ride costs Rs 10 per km, but the journey to Mars cost only Rs 7 per km, an argument against the charge of extravagance voiced by some. Though the Mars mission was launched before Modi’s emergence, he took full credit for it.
Modi announced some consular concessions to overseas Indians, but not the dual citizenship, the long-cherished dream of Indian-Americans. Many had expected him to announce it, going beyond the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card and the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, put in place by previous governments. He must have explored it and realised that dual citizenship was not feasible for various reasons, including constitutional constraints. Lifelong visa for PIO cardholders is, however, an improvement. His own visa issue appeared to be behind his comment that India was offering visa on arrival to those who are reluctant to give visas to Indians.
Modi was unconcerned about the fact that he was addressing essentially foreign nationals, whose allegiance is to the US rather than to India. He also ignored the fact that many of them did not follow Hindi. In fact, some in the audience had challenged Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000, when he spoke in Hindi at an Indian community function in Washington. When Vajpayee said that that he had spoken in Hindi even at the UN, he was told that he had the facility of simultaneous interpretation at the UN. At MSG, the mood was so exuberant that what Modi said was less important than the privilege of being with him.
Modi did not dwell at length on Indo-US relations, even though US policymakers were present, perhaps because he wanted to hold his horses until he reached Washington. But the word must have reached Obama loudly and clearly that a significant 1 percent of his people saw Modi as a messiah of change in India and that partnership with him will benefit the US in meeting the global challenges of the future. The euphoria of msg will definitely reverberate in the White House and the man, who was once a persona non grata in the US, will be warmly received. Obama is sure to seek his counsel on Ukraine, is, South China Sea and Afghanistan and seek to resolve problems relating to the nuclear deal, defence cooperation and investment.
The Modi magic is bound to make an impact on Obama and the American public. More than anything else, his message of peace, non-violence, development and a liberalised economy has been carried to the wide public opinion. Pepsico’s Indra Nooyi encapsulated the American response, when she said, “Great prime minister, answers questions brilliantly. He is very focussed on improving India and we are ready to work with him.”