Prime Minister, Narender Modi’s recent US visit has received a range of reactions: His adversaries have talked down the visit as dud. His supporters on the other hand, quite predictably, have termed it as path breaking. And, as for the independent watchers, well, they have been cautious and nuanced in their takes- hailing it as more than a reasonable attempt to reset the US-India relation, which in their view had started showing signs of a slide in the recent past.
Modi, the charmer he is with the words, was always expected to do more than those who have gone before him. The added advantage with him was that he is indisputably the most powerful prime minister the country has seen in recent history, who can afford to take unpopular decisions without having to look over his shoulders for support from anybody. But did he?
The essence of the diplomacy, as we all know, is that sometimes tactical compromises are necessary imperatives as they help build the long term mutual trust and secure countries’ their strategic goals. Those who understand foreign policy and the US-India equation know that this relation of all can’t now progress only on one way concessions from the US. US has realized that and also dropped enough hints during this visit. But has Modi, the charmer, who is hobbled, like so many of his genre, by the populism that is entrenched so very much in our political traditions been during this visit able to overcome the temptation of playing second fiddle to Modi, the pragmatist, who should not be so fettered? It is difficult to answer this question in simple and clear- ‘yes’ and ‘no’. But if you look at the clear takeaways from the visit, you realize that the realist in him may not after all have had as much of a say.
For a US-India watcher like me, the real test in this visit was to get the US to commit to a long needed strategic embrace in the Asia –Pacific region vaguely along much vaunted NATO traditions. With India increasingly being militarily circled by China and US’s need for a foil to thwart Chinese advances in the region and beyond, India had the right atmospherics to pitch for a smaller treaty of its own with the like- minded nations to create a countervailing dynamics in the region against the rising Chinese influence. Such a strategic alignment could have stakeholdership from nations like Australia, Japan, India and US. Its geographical spread over Asia-pacific, besides giving long desired foothold to the US, would have also helped India to set up a robust strategic depth of its own in the region. Remember, Australia and Japan have always craved for such a security pact in the region. For some reasons, though, this has not come about. India’s timidity in not giving precedence to expanding its strategic profile in the region over the myriad domestic frivolities it is trapped in is of course one of the reasons.
The other important aim for India should have been to seek out a separate stand-alone strategic bilateral partnership with the US. This could have been principally set in the defence arena with technology transfer being its overarching pivot. Though the Indo-US defence cooperation has been renewed, it is too small in sweep. In any case, it would have been renewed any way, with or without Modi, since it predominantly looks after the US interests.
India today needs new generation arms and warfare protocols. US does not share them with any countries, save as with the Israelis, for reasons of end users’ certification. India’s neighborhood is extremely hostile, and burdened as it is with a flatfooted army, which is equipped with the arms that lack both the potency and precision of this day and age, and also can’t mobilize itself quickly enough to fight localized wars, no country needs new gen arms more than India.
By all reckoning, India is the natural ally of the US. If US can be made to understand as much and its fears about end users’ certification allayed, this hurdle can be easily overcome. But India’s continual failure in making the US to see the strategic sense in this regard has been a disappointment. Alas, this visit was no different.
India continues to seek more investments from the US despite there being complaints about the lack of ease in doing business in India. PM Modi also continued with this tradition and dutifully assumed the role of a listening post in one such meeting with the top business honchos in the US. But as far as the outcome goes, there was not anything remarkable to write home about. Despite Modi’s salutary counsel and passionate pitch for investments in India, air in the meeting was palpably stiff with suspicion, which apparently lasted beyond the meeting as well.
Modi’s imploring the US businesses for more and higher investments in India had to fail. Not that he lacked conviction, but because investors would not come unless he fixes some of the policy and process wrinkles in the economy back home, which are a throwback to the UPA era and also bear NDA’s cachet. While his government has announced to rip the policy bottlenecks like retroactive taxation, the current land acquisition and inflexible and archaic labour laws etc. out of the statutory edifice, it has thus far not done anything in this regard. This was perhaps the reason why any big ticket investment from the US public sector was also not forthcoming.
Additionally, quite contrary to the popular perception about India’s new found stature, it appeared India was pleading for small time interventions instead of big ticket commitments. Look at India’s request proposals: assistance for building three smart cities, support for the recently launched Swacchh Bharat scheme, waging a joint battle against the Lashkars, JeM, D- Company etc., so on and so forth. Quite frankly, all of these projects have to be domestically bankrolled and anchored. For a third largest economy, seeking support for what are mandatory welfare programmes and also fiscally not prohibitive was a tad embarassing. Chinese with whom we tend to often compare would not have done that. And as regards fight against the Pak based terrorist groups that have pinpricked us for long, do we still think that the US would fight a war that could compromise its interests in Afghanistan and beyond? It is plain naiveté on our part to even think that.
On its part, US was always expected to throw its weight behind trade facilitation agreement currently stalled by India at WTO and pending nuke liability bill. As always, India went into the talks with only one option. It lacked any fall back option. It had no clue what if talks hit the roadblock. And this was its undoing. It forgot that the US-India relation can’t now look for sustenance from the frothy catchphrases and symbolism of the duo being the world’s oldest and largest democracies. This symbolism has no financial and strategic currency in the new age where national interests and mutually beneficial tangible outcomes have instead become the new legal tenders. The trouble with India was that it thought the US had more to gain from India and would, thus, play ball. This effectively killed the dialogue and reduced it to mere optics. On hindsight, therefore, those who called the shots in the parleys may be thinking that they should have been more flexible and forward looking.