The year was 1993. Three young men reached New Delhi to catch a midnight flight to the United States. Since they had time on their hands, they caught up with each other at the designated time before proceeding together to their destination in Lutyens’ Delhi for a meeting with a senior colleague. Their appointment was for 11 am. The host, an elderly gentleman, enquired about their well-being before launching himself into a tutorial on manners, etiquette and protocol. “Dress smart and get a shave. You would be representing the country,” he said, almost father-like. So, in the evening, the three men dutifully located a barber’s shop and did as ordered. That was how a clean-shaven Narendra Damodardas Modi made his way to the US. The elderly gentleman in question was LK Advani, who was then the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, while Modi’s two associates were Ananth Kumar and G Kishan Reddy.
Modi might have deferred to Advani and shaved off his beard (it has been the RSS pracharak-turned-prime minister’s constant companion for decades now), but he would not relent on the dress code, choosing kurta-pyjama over shirt and trousers. The BJP had nominated Modi, Kumar and Reddy for a US government-sponsored exchange programme organised by the American Council of Young Political Leaders. Modi and Kumar were then the BJP general secretaries in charge Gujarat and Karnataka, respectively; Reddy was the secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the BJP.
Modi spent a month criss-crossing the US, travelling to eight states and meeting with a diverse group of American lawmakers, governors and mayors. His itinerary included a visit to a NASA facility, where he interacted with some Indian scientists, and a series of meetings with the Indian diaspora.
Little did he or America or, for that matter, much of India know then that someone who posed for the camera (see photograph below) outside the White House would, come 2014, be welcomed with a red carpet by its occupant. This, after having treated him as persona non grata for close to a decade.
On 18 March 2005, the US Department of State denied Modi a diplomatic visa and also revoked his existing tourist/business visa. Modi had planned to visit Florida to address a gathering of Indian-American hotel owners, but the US government invoked the International Religious Freedom Act (the only time it has been applied so far) among other legislations against him after an organisation called the Coalition Against Genocide alleged that he had violated certain religious freedoms.
Since then, Modi had become a veritable pariah for some in the West; Asia, in contrast, was more hospitable to him. Modi visited China, Japan and Israel as the Gujarat chief minister. The US has still not revoked the ban (Modi became eligible for an A1 visa by virtue of being a head of government).
Some US lawmakers such as Ed Royce, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Aaron Schock, both Republicans, have publicly said that the US should have reversed the visa ban. Schock has even described the ban as “a huge mistake”.
However, the controversy refuses to die down. Days before Modi landed in the US, a New York court issued summons against him for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The US has since made it known that not only do heads of foreign governments enjoy immunity from American lawsuits but they cannot be personally served or handed court summons. An Indian court has since cleared Modi of complicity in the 2002 riots and today the world is sitting up and taking notice of Modi, the prime minister. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Modi used to be a four-letter word but not anymore.
Modi is no stranger to America. After his 1993 tour, Modi was to play an instrumental role again in 1999 in the wake of the Kargil conflict when he was deputed to lobby with the US lawmakers for adopting a resolution critical of Pakistan. The resolution threatened to cut off financial aid to Pakistan if it did not withdraw its forces from the territory held by India.
Modi’s travels are in stark contrast to that of Barack Obama. The only time Obama visited India before becoming the US president was in 1981. That year, as a 20-year-old student, he travelled first to Jakarta in Indonesia to meet his mother and step-sister and then to Karachi in Pakistan before rounding off his trip with a visit to Hyderabad in India.
The only other Indian connection to Obama then was his college mate, Vinai Thummalapally, who served as the US ambassador to Belize (the first Indian-American ambassador in US history) and is now the executive director of SelectUSA, which was established under the US Department of Commerce by Obama to showcase the US as the world’s premier business location and attract FDI into the country.
Thummalapally visited India before Modi’s visit to the US; he travelled to New Delhi, Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Bengaluru and Mumbai to meet Indian business leaders. (Thummalapally and certain other Indian-Americans in the Obama administration such as Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the US State Department, and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah were among the guests invited to a dinner hosted by Obama at the White House in honour of Modi.)
Some in the BJP and the RSS sought to project Modi’s talks with Obama as any other bilateral meeting that an Indian prime minister holds on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Put differently, Modi travelled to the US primarily for participating in the UNGA debate, on the sidelines of which he also held talks with Obama.
A competing view is that Modi travelled to the US after his meetings with Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping, which to some foreign policy analysts, was by design. The message that Modi sought to send out was that the centre of gravity was shifting to Asia, the power equations were changing and therefore it makes sense for India to start a dialogue with Japan and China without belittling the role of the US.
Over the next three decades, China and India are expected to become the first and the third largest economies, respectively (the US would be placed second). So, in terms of heft, these three countries would be more or less at par and they would dominate global economy and politics for some time to come.
In many ways, Modi’s visit to the US will be an opportunity for American officials, lawmakers and corporates to get to know him as well as he does America. And it needs to begin with Obama.
“With Modi’s arrival in Washington, Obama has a rare second chance to get India right after this country’s ties with New Delhi atrophied over the past two years,” wrote Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a former US undersecretary of state for political affairs (2005-08) and lead US negotiator of the US-India civil nuclear agreement, in The Washington Post. “A US-India renaissance would bring the added benefit of clear bipartisan support at home. Bill Clinton began the US effort to define a more practical foreign policy partnership with India at the end of his time in office. George W Bush had great success in moulding close security and counterterrorism connections to the Indian government. There is a Republican-Democratic consensus in Washington that India can be one of our central 21st-century partners. Now, it is time for Obama to make his mark with India.”
Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private thinktank based in Washington, believes that “the quality of the personal relations between leaders makes a difference to the way in which they conduct foreign policy. And especially among friendly nations, such as the United States and India, relationships make a huge difference to whether the outcomes of summits are prosaic or momentous”.
However, Obama does not have time on his side. According to Lalit Mansingh, a former foreign secretary and a former Indian ambassador to the US, Obama is fast becoming a lame-duck president, and even if the US wants to, there is only a limited amount of support he can give to this partnership in the remaining two years of his last term. “Modi is ascendant but Obama is descendent,” cautions Mansingh.
With Modi at the helm, there is an opportunity for the US to reboot its relationship with India. Unlike former prime minister Manmohan Singh, whose instinct by virtue of having worked as a civil servant was to preserve, Modi is a politician who seeks to transform. Tellis feels that one of the primary tasks for Obama and Modi would be to rejuvenate the concept of strategic partnership.
“Today, US policymakers across a wide spectrum are perplexed by what the phrase ‘strategic partnership’ actually means (insofar as) India is concerned,” says Tellis. “After an interregnum of desultory conversations, Modi’s visit to Washington presents a great opportunity to reconsider this issue. Beyond platitudes about democracy and common values, it is important that both sides have an honest conversation about the kind of relationship they seek and what it obligates mutually. Modi and Obama are both plain-speaking men and should have no difficulty conducting the type of conversation their predecessor governments once had. If they do so, the bilateral because it will leave little room for exaggerated or misplaced expectations on either side.”
By all indications Obama set out to do just that when he greeted Modi with a “Kem Chho?” (how are you?) in Gujarati at the private dinner he hosted for a select group of officials that comprised, among others, Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Adviser Susan Rice on the US side and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh on the Indian side. The host had taken great care with the menu, offering only vegetarian dishes in deference to Modi, who was observing the Navratri fast.
The two seemed to have hit it off almost immediately given the similarities in their respective election campaigns, their digital savvy, the manner in which both leaders overcame odds to come to occupy the high office and how they both transformed themselves from being the proverbial outsider to the consummate insider. The two leaders issued a Vision Statement, which was titled “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go”. It said, among other things, the following:
• “Through intense consultations, joint exercises, and shared technology, our security cooperation will make the region and the world safe and secure. Together, we will combat terrorist threats and keep our homelands and citizens safe from attacks”;
• “We will prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and remain committed to reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, while promoting universal, verifiable, and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament”;
• “We will partner to ensure that both countries have affordable, clean, reliable and diverse sources of energy, including through our efforts to bring American- origin nuclear power technologies to India”
• “We will support an open and inclusive rulesbased global order, in which India assumes greater multilateral responsibility, including in a reformed UN Security Council”;
• “The US and India commit to expand and deepen our strategic partnership in order to harness the inherent potential of our two democracies and the burgeoning ties between our people, economies, and businesses. Together, we seek a reliable and enduring friendship that bolsters security and stability, contributes to the global economy and advances peace and prosperity for our citizens and throughout the world”; and
• “We have a vision that the US and India will have a transformative relationship as trusted partners in the 21st century. Our partnership will be a model for the rest of the world”
In an op-ed article jointly penned by Modi and Obama, which was published by The Washington Post on the morning of 30 September before the delegation-level talks got under way, they emphasised on the need to “set a new agenda”. A relevant portion from the op-ed read: “With a reinvigorated level of ambition and greater confidence, we can go beyond modest and conventional goals.”
Both leaders got an opportunity to set out the contours of that agenda when they jointly addressed the media soon after the conclusion of their talks. Modi spoke about “shared interests” in furthering defence relations and security dialogue with the US. Expectedly, the “framework for the US-India defence relationship” was renewed for another 10 years. It was signed in 2005 for a 10-year period. India invited US defence companies to come and support India’s defence manufacturing industry. For its part, the US agreed to cooperate as a knowledge partner for India’s planned National Defence University.
Modi reaffirmed India’s commitment to pursuing civil nuclear energy cooperation with the US and resolving all issues, without specifically referring to the Nuclear Liability Act. An India-US group would be tasked to address all outstanding issues and speed up deployment of US-origin nuclear reactors in India.
He urged Obama to allow the Indian service sector easy access to the US markets. Both sides had candid talks on the WTO (World Trade Organisation) negotiations. Modi conveyed to Obama that India supports trade facilitation as long as India’s food security concerns are taken care of.
Regional and global issues figured prominently in the talks, too. China, for one, was the proverbial elephant in the room. The details of their conversations on Washington’s rebalance towards Asia, maritime security and the global commons are not likely to be made known in a hurry because of the sensitive nature of the issues involved.
All that Modi ventured to say in the course of a joint press statement with Obama after the conclusion of their talks was that peace and security in the Asia-Pacific was of paramount importance and that there was a convergence of views regarding the region between India and the US. The US, he was quick to add, was “intrinsic” to India’s Look East Policy.
Significantly, an India-US Joint Statement issued towards the end of the bilateral talks said that India, the US and Japan would explore holding their trilateral dialogue at the level of foreign ministers and “work more closely with other Asia-Pacific countries through consultations, dialogues, and joint exercises”.
However, it needs to be said here that while the US might expect India to play a more robust role in East Asia, Modi is handicapped by a dissonance within India’s strategic community on how to deal with China.
Delivering the 25th late Air Chief Marshal PC Lal Memorial Lecture in New Delhi on 26 March 2008, the then national security adviser, MK Narayanan, had said that a “national consensus across the board” was required on issues such as whether “China is a threat or is China a neighbour that we can go along with”. Six years later, New Delhi is still none the wiser about Beijing’s intentions, particularly in light of recent incidents along the undemarcated border between the two neighbours.
(Even as Modi held talks with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Ministry of External Affairs put out a statement conveying that the border commanders of India and China had met at Spanggur Gap earlier in the day and that the stand-off in Chumar and Demchok areas had been successfully terminated.)
Pakistan came up for discussion in the context of the challenges posed by terrorism in South Asia and beyond. Deepening and broadening the counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation was particularly flagged by Modi. Both sides agreed to work together to disrupt financial and tactical support for terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the Haqqani network and Dawood Ibrahim’s D-Company, all of which are linked to Pakistan. Dawood is wanted in India in connection with the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts case. India and the US also agreed to collaborate to dismantle safe havens for terrorist and criminal networks.
In the run-up to the summit meeting, Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution (a private think-tank in the US) and a former CIA analyst, had contended in a “India-US policy memo” that “counterterrorism cooperation with India should include robust intelligence exchange on Pakistan’s terrorist connections, particularly the ISI-LeT connection. Another LeT attack like Mumbai or Herat will provoke the most serious crisis in years between India and Pakistan — the more that can be done to prevent such a disaster, the better. Even if an attack cannot be foiled, the more information exchanged about Pakistani involvement with LeT, the more likely the US will have credibility with New Delhi if a crisis occurs”.
Riedel also said, “The US should also consider a unilateral step: Placing Pakistan on the State Department list of terrorist sponsor states. It certainly meets the criteria and has for decades. The first Bush administration seriously considered this step in 1992. Such a step would obviously have immense consequences for US-Pakistan relations. A more limited step would be to target specific sanctions against individual Pakistani officials involved in supporting terrorism like members of isi’s ‘S’ branch that handles liaison with let, the Haqqani network, and others. A targeted counterterrorism sanctions move against specific Pakistani officials would send a strong deterrent message to the Pakistani Army and could be a warning shot before putting Pakistan on the terror patron state list.”
And as incidence would have it, the US Treasury Department on 30 September took action against Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and the LeT by naming some individuals associated with them as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. “Both LeT and HuM are violent terrorist organisations that train militants and support the activities of many of the best known and brutal extremist groups, including al-Qaeda,” US Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen said, adding that “today’s designations will disrupt efforts by these terrorist organisations to access their financial networks and the international financial system”.
The foreign secretary-level talks between India and Pakistan were called off last month after the Pakistan high commissioner to India met with Hurriyat leaders disregarding New Delhi’s objections. Pakistan carried forward the cold vibes to the UNGA where Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif harped on Jammu and Kashmir. Modi, uncharacteristically, did not join issue with Sharif, as some had expected him to do; instead, Modi reiterated India’s position that it was willing to resume a dialogue with Pakistan so long as those talks are held in “an atmosphere of peace, without a shadow of terrorism”.
Those developments came close on the heels of Modi inviting leaders of Pakistan and other SAARC countries for his swearing-in ceremony this May. A Pakistan-based terrorist group had attacked the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, just days before he was sworn in.
Significantly, unlike previous years, the leaders of India and Pakistan did not meet in New York. Last year, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh met with his Pakistan counterpart on the margins of the UNGA, defying public sentiment and in spite of an overwhelming body of evidence of Pakistan’s complicity in allowing its territory to be used for mounting terrorist attacks against India and Indian interests, at home and abroad alike.
Incidentally, the history of India-Pakistan bilateral engagements is replete with an unending series of terrorist attacks interspersed with peace talks, an overwhelming majority of which were held in third countries on the margins of multilateral summits.
Last year’s meeting between Manmohan and Sharif in New York was but one in a long list of bilateral engagements starting with the 2006 Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Havana, Cuba; the 2008 Asia-Europe Meeting in Beijing, China; the 2008 UNGA session in New York; the 2009 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia; the 2009 NAM Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt; and the 2010 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit in Thimphu, Bhutan.
Afghanistan was an obvious talking point. India not only reiterated its commitment to working along with Afghanistan for regional peace and security but also improving its coordination with the US on Afghanistan.
Modi revealed his mind when he told the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent think-tank in New York, that he would like the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan to be “slow” and carried out in a calibrated manner; otherwise, he felt, Afghanistan could go the Iraq way. He also said that terrorism was a phenomenon that needed to be tackled globally.
In a related development, on 30 September, the new government of Afghanistan headed by President Ashraf Ghani signed a much-delayed bilateral security agreement with the US, which will, among other things, provide the residual troops, numbering about 12,000, immunity from criminal prosecution after a majority of the US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan by the year-end. Riedel argues that the US should “seek to work with India and Afghanistan” given the fact that India is already increasing its capabilities in Afghanistan and working closely with the Afghan government.
Modi and Obama also discussed the situation in West Asia. The US is keen to see India join a ‘coalition’ of 40-odd countries that supports a US-led campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. However, India has traditionally been averse to taking part in any operation that is not held under the UN flag.
There is no gainsaying that intent alone will not help to translate Obama and Modi’s vision for the India-US relationship into reality. Cold logic will probably dictate and determine the future course of the bilateral ties.
Modi alluded to it when, in an oblique reference to irritants in the relationship, he used marriage as a metaphor to point out that even happily-married couples have fights and maybe there was no need to seek comfort on all issues in a relationship. “One does not have to be comfortable about everything. Even between a husband and wife 100 percent comfort is not possible,” he said, revealing the pragmatic side of his personality.
Modi knows only too well that there are pockets of resistance even within his own party to issues such as GM crops, FDI in multi-brand retail, WTO negotiations and an Indian education system modelled on the US four-year undergraduate programme.
If Obama and Modi succeed in enabling their respective bureaucracies to overcome the inertia that has bedevilled them for the past few years, then it should not come as a surprise if both sides make considerable progress on some of these issues in the coming months. So, going forward, expect love and heartache in equal measure.