What sets the current India-U.S. relationship apart is its political and economic heft and the growing geopolitical and security dimensions of the friendship
Despite the argumentative chaos of Indian democratic life, where his proponents and opponents continue to slug it out, Narendra Modi is widely seen abroad as a leader who signifies energy and hope for an aspirational India. His coming to office unleashed a surge of expectations, and that tide has not receded. The sustained American outreach and his embrace of the prospect of and increasingly tangible reality of interlocking interests between the world’s two most important democracies is very much a part of the Modi-era zeitgeist.
Both of the Asia-Pacific world
This week Mr. Modi went to Washington again, his visit a powerful and evocative celebration of what is now termed an enduring global partnership between two key democracies, both countries of the Asia-Pacific world. This relationship is an ever-evolving one, increasingly multifaceted. Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar termed this visit, the second bilateral visit made by Mr. Modi to the United States in two years, as a “consolidation”. The joint statement issued during the visit, on June 7, spoke of the two countries pledging to “provide global leadership on issues of shared interest”.
The opening of the doors of the Capitol, as Mr. Modi termed it, during his address to the two Houses of Congress, of this “temple of democracy” as he said, drawing reference also to Abraham Lincoln, signified in many ways the coming round of the circle of redemption for a political personality who, till his coming to office as Prime Minister of India, had been denied a visa to enter the U.S. Pushing the right buttons, knowing how to win American friends, speaking an idiom understood by Americans, he demonstrated perfect pitch in his homage to the memory of American servicemen buried in Arlington Cemetery.
Stressing the D-word — democracy — is a must for all interactions between India and the U.S. Despite the criticism about levels of religious freedom in India, which some Americans claim is directed against us because India is “held to a higher standard”, India’s well-burnished credentials as a vibrant and strongly anchored democracy are not questioned in the U.S. Mr. Modi struck a responsive chord when he made the mandatory references.
At the U.S-India Business Council, the “reform to transform” message was well-articulated by the Prime Minister. There has been apprehension expressed in Washington about the pace of reform of the Indian economy and the lack of ease of doing business. Mr. Modi sought to reassure American business and investors by outlining measures taken by his government to effect further liberalisation of the Indian economy. “In my vision, a partnership between American capital and innovation, and Indian human resources and entrepreneurship can be very powerful,” he said. His message to his American audience also was that developed countries must open their economies not only to goods but also services from developing economies like India. The message should not be lost.
This is a relationship that can deservedly, today, be granted an affirmation of good health and as far as foreign policy narratives go, India under Mr. Modi has moved beyond the hesitations of history, as the Prime Minister put it, to a state of “comfort, candour and convergence” in its “extraordinary” partnership with the U.S. The stress is on “long-term”, whether it is cooperation in clean energy, including nuclear power, greenhouse gas emission controls, renewable power, or in combating the threat of terrorists accessing chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological materials. The commitment to enhance cyber collaboration and cybersecurity cooperation defined in the joint statement must be consolidated with a well-structured programme of implementation.
The NSG message
That the U.S. champions the cause of India’s application for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and beckoned to NSG Participating Governments to support India’s application when it comes up at the NSG Plenary later this month is yet another indicator of the robust state of the relationship. The recognition of India as a Major Defence Partner (or, a “major partner of equal status”) of the U.S. becomes a clarion call for deeper and more substantive defence ties, especially given the understanding that India will receive licence-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies for defence production. This signals an even more dynamic phase in defence cooperation and indicates the long road covered in taking defence ties forward in the last few years. The tying in of the co-production and co-development of technologies covering naval, air and weapons systems under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative with the Make in India mission is another positive development.
The Prime Minister did well to take the opportunity of his address to the U.S. Congress to provide the geopolitical accent to the bilateral partnership. The broad sweep of his energetic comments encompassed the world of the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific, emphasising the promise and potential of India-U.S. cooperative approaches to maritime security, trade and communication, the conflicted world of Islamist terror that threatens both our homelands, the crucial need to safeguard and ensure a peaceful future for Afghanistan by working together, and the need for a clear and unified opposition to those in India’s neighbourhood who peddle terror as an export commodity.
The past, as it was once said, is another country — or another set of countries, one might say. Both India and the U.S. have consciously set aside the estrangements and alienation of the past, they are elaborating the concept of a regional and global commons defined by the values of democracy, good governance, the centrality of development, the celebration of plurality and diversity, open and inclusive security structures that ensure the management of regional tensions, particularly in the maritime space. The references to oceanic security (which is as they should be, considering particularly the organic connectivity between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea) are bound, no doubt, to be observed with a gimlet eye in Beijing, which has already vented its discomfort with what we should all acknowledge is the welcome confidence and assertion with which India is engaging partners like the U.S., Japan, Australia, Vietnam and Singapore in the maritime sphere.
On the eve of the visit, a veteran American observer termed Indian democracy and stability as core American interests. Those core interests are not a current monopoly: they have informed the American perspective even in the past. What sets the relationship apart from its past avatars is the political and economic heft that marks it today, the centrality of people in both countries at its heart, the attainments and achievements of Indian-Americans, and the growing geopolitical and security dimensions of the friendship of the two countries. In recognising this, we would do well to acknowledge the trend and direction set by the governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh in terms of a steady investment in building a better relationship with the U.S. No amnesia is warranted.
The Obama factor
The Prime Minister has demonstrated through his U.S. engagement over the last two years his capacity to bond with the American leadership, and the bonhomie that he and President Barack Obama exude has had a salutary impact on diplomatic ties. The U.S. is in the midst of a presidential election, and we are yet to discern what the future will hold for that country in terms of who will emerge as winner and how the next President will tackle the relationship with India. This is of course especially in the case of a Trump presidency becoming a reality. There is a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress on India and the importance of strengthening relations, but this does not preclude the possibility of occasional infirmities in the shape of differences over trade and intellectual property, immigration issues, visas for professionals, and the bringing up of issues like religious freedom. What we must continue to emphasise is an onward and upward trajectory in the relationship, and the ability to ingest lessons learnt in recent years. There is nothing more respectable than the eminence of experience carried with wisdom and equilibrium.
As we bid farewell in the next few months to an Obama presidency, India would do well to acknowledge the warmth and sincerity that President Obama has demonstrated consistently in his dealings with India and his steering of this relationship from the American side. He coined the phrase “defining partnership” for our relations — and America’s new President, she or he, must take inspiration from Mr. Obama’s willingness to chart new frontiers, while consolidating past and present cooperation, so as to take the India-U.S. partnership forward in the years ahead.
Nirupama Rao is a former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to the United States.
Keywords: India-US bilateral relations, Narendra Modi visit to US, Modi in US, Narendra Modi-Barack Obama meeting, joint session of Congress