Given that Indo-US ties are currently at a decade-low, and New Delhi has been dancing the tango with two of the biggest Asian countries as choreographed by the newly elected 15th PM of India, how Modi’s tryst with New York and Washington will pan out in the larger scheme of things is a matter of immense consequence. Narendra Modi’s meeting with US president Barack Obama may or may not send back the multi-billion dollars that marked the former’s conferences with Japan’s Shinzo Abe and China’s Xi Jinping, but it would certainly lay the cornerstone of a long innings of Indo-US relations to be played out at least over the next five years.
Today, on Sunday, 28 September, 2014, Narendra Modi is expected to address the over three-million strong Indian-American community at New York City’s iconic Madison Square Garden in the heart of Manhattan. In the past two days, Modi, after his arrival in New York and courtesy calls with Mayor Bill de Blasio, Nobel laureate scientist Harold Eliot Varmus, had made spectacular appearances at Ground Zero and 9/11 memorial.
His participation in the General Debate of the 69th UNGA, despite the seemingly South-South cooperation friendly theme of ‘Delivering on and implementing a Transformative Post-2015 Development Agenda’, was, in fact, lukewarm. However, his one-on-one meetings with the United Nations general secretary Ban Ki-Moon, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina have definitely been more fruitful, even though they were more ornamental than the summit-level talks that the Indian leader has shown an uncanny mastery of.
More credit should be given to his address at the annual Global Citizen Festival at NYC’s Central Park and later his rendezvous with prominent Indian-Americans was certainly a stellar show. Modi generated enough curiosity and satiated the third-largest Asian community in America to leave them wanting for more. Modi, their newest and more potent desi icon, fed them his newest mantra: Make in India!
‘Modison’ Square Garden, today, will become the cauldron of transnational nationalism that Modi will try to hardsell to his Indian-American cheerleaders, a community known as the ‘model minority’ and lauded for its superlative achievements in professional sectors like IT, medicine, academics and now business and finance. His Saturday (27 September) rendezvous with Nikki Haley, the Republican Indian-American governor of South Carolina, was a teaser of more power-packed action that we get to see from 28-30 September. Seen with Reliance honcho and richest man of India Mukesh Ambani at his side, Modi is the object of affection of not just the non-resident Indians (NRIs) and persons of Indian origin (PIOs), he’s equally the most sought after man and the darling of Indo-US business fraternity, the reservations notwithstanding.
What Modi will tell them has been probably already laid out in the Prime Minister’s editorial in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page (published Friday, 26 September). It’s a clarion call for investment in India and a no-holds-barred, oft-repeated assurance that red tape will be replaced by red carpet. In fact, Modi’s reconfiguration of FDI, from foreign direct investment to ‘First Develop India’, is as much a diktat to his compatriots as it is a firm squeeze on the extended hands of the eager and resplendent NRIs, who, now more than ever before, have one eye set on their (imaginary) homeland and want to build stronger cross-border connections, both cultural and commercial. A crucial source of remittance, the NRI contribution to India’s GDP will remain the icing on the (expanded or shriveled) cake of overall American investment in Indian soil following Modi’s historic visit.
But today’s evening gala, his conference with members of US Jewish community and the dinner reception hosted by Indian ambassador to US, S A Jaishankar, at The Pierre, a super-luxury heritage hotel owned by our very own Taj group, would be decisive. Modi, who believes in strong interpersonal contact, would certainly avenge The Wharton School humiliation, when he, still mightily scarred by the ghosts of 2002 Godhra riots, was not allowed to address the famous institution and not granted a US visa. The sweet tale of irony notwithstanding, Modi’s communion with the American Jewish lobby, that controls chunks of Wall Street and defence industry, would certainly be a catalyst of a far deeper engagement.
THE BARACK BARRICADE
However, what would go down as the centrepiece of this elaborate exhibition called ‘Namo’ste America’, and would essentially determine the next few years of Indo-American bilateral and strategic relationship, directing the course of FDI inflow and concurrence or dissonance over crucial issues, is the personal chemistry that Indian Prime Minister Narenda Damodardas Modi would share with the US President Barack Hussein Obama. No two people could be as different yet a trajectory as similar as the two current leaders of world’s largest and strongest democracies.
Their immense personal journeys notwithstanding, Modi and Obama as people are chalk and cheese, the former a tea-seller’s son with RSS background, and the latter a posterboy of cosmopolitan, pseudo-post-racial America with a Harvard law degree. Their closeness, if forged beyond the customary jokes and rehearsed anecdotes at dinner tables in White House, would be undoubtedly hinged on the fact that they gave their respective countries the power to dream and reimagine their nations in compellingly potent ways (even though Modi rode the Hindutva wave and Obama channelised the chimera of united colours of ‘peace-loving’ America).
Hence, while the much-touted special nod that Modi will get when he becomes the presidential guest of honour in Blair House and has private dinner with the US president in White House on Monday, 29 September, what transpires between the two will pave the way for future roadmaps. Evidently, the sideshow is the real plot here, as far as Indo-US bilateral relations are concerned, as the UNGA is only a pretext for the top-level meet expected to pluck the mammoth thorns stuck in the throats of both Washington and New Delhi.
GAME OF THORNS
Sorting out the chief issues plaguing Indo-US ties will undoubtedly be the focus of tomorrow’s Modi-Obama exclusive soiree. The main bones of contention include: a) concurring on trade facilitation agreement reached at 2013 Bali summit of World Trade Organization (WTO), which India stalled because its serious flaws vis-à-vis food subsidies and food security for developing nations; b) America’s hefty attitude towards pharmaceutical sector and the US-driven Big Pharma’s longstanding war of patents and intellectual property rights with resistant Indian manufacturers of generic drugs; c) India’s desire to take nuclear cooperation beyond civil purposes and to expand footprints into defence sector with transfer of dual-use technology has been stalled by America’s extreme irritation with the absolutely crucial ‘civil liability clause’; d) Non-nuclear defence cooperation, for which the daylong meetings with US Vice-President Joe Biden and others on 30 September have been earmarked; e) Extensive NSA surveillance of Indian politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats and business magnets, which was surreptitiously allowed in Indian territory and consuls abroad by the previous UPA regime in New Delhi.
In addition, there are the usual suspects: decision on FDI caps and making India commerce-savvy for US multinationals to drop their anchors and crossover; among other imperatives. How Narendra Modi walks the tightrope and convinces a US president with just two years left in office and a dipping popularity level to thaw the diplomatic ice without compromising on either India’s positions vis-a-vis the abovementioned issues or New Delhi’s relationships with Beijing, Tokyo and Moscow will be extremely interesting to watch. Otherwise, this ‘historic visit’ will remain much ado about nothing.