Millennium Post

India’s much ado about nothing

In September every year, leaders of more than 190 states across the world, whether big or small, get a chance to make long speeches at the United Nations General Assembly’s inaugural session, which are usually attended by nobody except their own countries’ diplomats and journalists (typically flown in and hosted by the domestic taxpayer). They use lofty rhetoric about improving the international climate while scoring points against their adversaries- their speeches’ real target.

The respective countries’ ‘patriotic’ media dutifully reports with great flourish what their prime ministers/presidents said, as it if were something epoch-making. The press in the rest of the world ignores them. So does the UN!

Prime minister Narendra Modi played out the same charade last fortnight at the UN, when he made a speech to a General Assembly hall which was two-thirds empty. He said absolutely nothing substantive- although his body language suggested that he was continuing with his election campaign, shadowboxing his adversaries. Yet the Indian media, in full attendance, with multiple anchors and reporters from each TV channel, spent hours analysing it.

The same thing was true of Mr Modi’s Madison Square Garden event, for which the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS’s overseas affiliate) mobilised 19,000 people, each of whom paid $5000 to $10,000 to attend it. Most of them were non-resident Indians (NRIs), who are culturally insecure and divided over their identity. They long for the country they have left behind and try to recreate (or rather manufacture) its images through arcane rituals and obscurantist practices, which resident middle class Indians discarded long ago.

The Garden event was a real Indian-American circus, dominated by a rowdy crowd which chanted ‘Har har Modi’ and assaulted TV anchor Rajdeep Sardesai for asking routine questions without even a hint of irreverence. The chanting impelled the announcer to say: ‘It’s starting to sound like a campaign rally…Remember, he’s already elected.’ By contrast, the audience was lukewarm to the presence of several US Senators, 30 Congressmen and a state Governor on the stage. The publicity material for this jamboree announced what must come as great news for most resident Indians, namely, ‘India has witnessed a century of change in Mr Modi’s first 100 days’ as Prime minister! Displaying his obsession with coining bad alliterations, Mr Modi spoke of the ‘Three Ds’ (democracy, demographic dividend and demand) as the key to India’s progress.

Mr Modi devised a simple solution to the question of attracting foreign investment: he exhorted each NRI to send five American families to India as tourists, and offered to export Indian teachers to the rest of the world as a means of earning revenue—when the country is itself short of trained teachers and employs unqualified para-teachers on measly salaries in a majority of its schools. Mr Modi’s admirers compared his ‘Modison’ Square Garden speech with Swami Vivekananda’s address of 1893 at the parliament of religions in Chicago for its celebration of India’s great civilisational heritage. Nothing could be sillier. It’s another matter that the US media ignored it.

Underscoring his bilateral talks with US officials in Washington, Mr Modi declared his visit ‘very successful and satisfactory’ and announced: ‘Thank You America!’ He said Mr Obama’s interaction with him—the President threw a special dinner for him with 20 guests, and took him on a tour of the Martin Luther King Memorial—gave the relationship a ‘new dimension.’ Much was also made of their joint editorial for The Washington Post.

However, there’s nothing unique about this. Such joint articles are a standard practice even with the leaders of smaller countries. In 2009, Dr Manmohan Singh was given much more lavish treatment, including a dinner with 300 guests.

As The New York Times put it, Mr Obama wanted to spotlight his ‘hopes for working with Mr. Modi while not lavishing the full measure of White House pageantry on a leader who until recently was barred from entering the US because of the allegations of human rights abuses …’

The joint Modi-Obama ‘vision statement’ for the US-India Strategic Partnership is hollow and full of inanities such as working together ‘not just for the benefit of both our nations, but for the benefit of the world’, and ‘reducing the salience of nuclear weapons’—just when both states are building up or modernising their nuclear arsenals. (The US is launching a $1,000 billion modernisation programme. India is stockpiling plutonium and enriched uranium for more bombs.)

True, a number of agreements were signed or initialled: renewing a 10-year defence cooperation framework, promoting investment, development of ‘smart cities’, visa-on-arrival for US citizens beginning 2015, sale of armaments, cooperation in science and technology, and promotion of renewable energy.

But this happened in all recent visits of Indian Prime ministers to the US. Such discrete agreements don’t add up to a breakthrough. Besides, renewable energy isn’t a forte of the US; its economy is addicted to fossil fuels and it’s a laggard in green technologies in the First World.

The effort to mend recent strains in India-US relations was only partly successful. Mr Modi’s visit failed to rekindle the drive for a closer, qualitatively new bilateral relationship—or as some wide-eyed admirers of America put it, ‘romance’. Two major thorny issues still remain unaddressed: actualisation of the US-India nuclear deal through reactor imports, and India’s position on trade-related and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues in the World Trade Organisation negotiations.

To indicate its ‘flexibility’ on the IPR issue just before Mr Modi’s visit, the Indian government suddenly reduced the range of drugs subjected to price control by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, including widely prescribed medicines for the treatment of diabetes, cancer, tuberculosis, cardiac disease and HIV-AIDS. This move was clearly meant to favour US manufacturers of these drugs and prepare the way for a change in India’s IPR regime.

This will raise the prices of these essential medicines and harm the interests of millions of Indians. But deplorable as this is, the move is unlikely to satisfy the US which wants comprehensive concessions from India on a whole gamut of trade-related issues, including artificially freezing the prices of food procured for India’s public distribution system at their level in the mid-1980s.  India did not join the 70-nation coalition. This reflects pure, unrefined pragmatism: it’s easy to see that IS won’t be destroyed by aerial strikes alone. Thus, primary purpose of Modi’s hyper-activism may have more to do with winning Western legitimation for himself than with substance.  IPA

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