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Even before the wheels of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Air India One left American soil, commentators have dismissed his meeting with US businessmen, senators, and president Barack Obama as more pageantry than substance. This impetuous judgment, however, is either terribly naïve or deliberately pessimistic.

Indeed, Modi did not return with a Percentages Agreement or a trillion-dollar aid package – one wonders if even those would have satisfied his critics – but to pass off the Indian prime minister’s trip as pageantry entirely misses the history of Indo-US relations and the situation the two democracies find themselves in. For that matter, no Indian prime ministerial visit to any country comes to mind wherein agreements were made that altered the course of history; the announcement of the Indo-US nuclear deal during Manmohan Singh’s visit in July 2005 is perhaps the sole exception and that was arguably an entirely American initiative.

The unseen agenda of Modi’s meeting with Obama after his visit to the United Nations was damage control. After a positive start to better relations under President George W Bush and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, relations between India and the United States began to fray during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance. Over the decade of UPA rule, India-US relations sank to their lowest since the end of the Cold War despite the resumption of civil nuclear cooperation by the international community with India.

It is easy to hold the Indo-US nuclear deal up as a shining example of close strategic relations between the world’s two largest democracies now but the negotiations over the path-breaking agreement were a trying period. The treaty was ratified by the Indian parliament with great difficulty and only after a cash-for-votes scandal rocked the UPA.

Since then, India’s nuclear civil liability law (2010) has effectively blocked the expansion of nuclear energy in the country as no firm, including India’s own Nuclear Power Corporation of India, was willing to bear the burden of supplier’s liability. The United States, who had strongly supported India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the International Atomic Energy Agency, was left out in the cold as their hopes for an abiding nuclear relationship with India faltered.

Indian defence purchases from the United States was also thought to be a sign of warming relations. Although an improvement from the days of the Cold War, Delhi’s defence equipment procurement has been ad hoc and was initially hindered by the lack of an adequate legal and operational framework between the two countries. The United States lost out on the Indian Air Force’s tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft and Washington was hesitant to sell India its Javelin anti-tank missile until Delhi began considering the Israeli Spike. A few deals were indeed signed, giving India the F414 engine for its quasi-indigenously manufactured Light Combat Aircraft,  the C-17 Globemaster III, the C-130J Super Hercules, the AH-64 Apache assault helicopter, the P-8I Neptune, and other weapons systems and missiles. However, despite their high dollar value, these purchases were seen as merely transactional and did little to reverse the drift that was increasingly being felt by officials in Washington and Delhi.

The Obama White House has always been accused of allowing US relations with India to slide after the previous administration’s persistent wooing of Delhi. Whether there is some merit to Delhi’s complaint or whether the urgent crowded out the important in Washington, the optimism and energy in the US-India relationship waned rapidly during Manmohan Singh’s second term as prime minister. Several crises around the world – the South China Sea, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Middle East – captured the US mind share while India boosted its welfare spending, failed to deliver on economic reforms, neglected its infrastructure, was mired in corruption, and instituted bizarre tax policies that chased business away from its shores. There was little reason for the United States to look to India as a valuable partner except for the hope that the South Asian country would get its act together and arrest its descent into chaos.

In February 2012, the Centre for Policy Research released a document titled, Non-Alignment 2.0. The report, put together by a small team of former government officials, retired military men, academics, businessmen, and journalists, was unfortunately titled in that it recast Indian foreign policy in the same old Nehruvian mould widely considered to be a failure. Furthermore, Nehru’s non-alignment was usually soft on Moscow and made Washington the target of its ire. The release of Non-Alignment 2.0 was hardly a sensible move, especially at a time when the United States and India were trying to move past casual indifference and towards a strategic relationship.

In December 2013, the arrest of India’s Acting Consul General in New York, Devyani Khobragade, sparked a heated diplomatic tit-for-tat between the United States and India. After the strip search of the Indian diplomat was explained away as “procedure,” Delhi similarly enforced Indian law strictly and removed concrete barricades around the US embassy that were encroaching on a public roadway. In the wake of a recent deadly assault on the US embassy in Tripoli, Washington was incensed at what it saw as Indian petulance putting its officials in danger. Ultimately, the US ambassador to India, Nancy Powell resigned and the post remains vacant (though a new appointee has just been nominated and awaiting Congressional confirmation).

For all the newspaper columns painting a rosy picture of US-India relations, the reality was far more dreary. If anything, it was the potential of a genuine relationship that kept the idea on life support until sunnier days. The new prime minister had the difficult task of rekindling a relationship that had accumulated more than its fair share of cynicism in both capitals over the past five years.

There is, of course, Modi’s personal baggage – the refusal of a visa to him by the United States in 2005. This was compounded by the issuance of a summons by a federal court in New York for his role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 – was the United States serious about a flowering relationship with India or not? Admirably, the Indian prime minister has not allowed these personal slights to obstruct national interest; he has gone to Washington and delivered the loud and clear message that India is open for business again.

During Modi’s stay in the United States, he took the time to meet with business leaders as well as elected officials. This was a smart move, given that the United States does not hold sovereign wealth the way Japan or China do and the president himself would not be able to do much more than encourage American business to invest in India. Modi has promised to push forward on economic reforms and eased the visa norms for Americans to come to India. This small step will have a greater footfall in terms of investments than is apparent immediately.

On top of the moribund relationship Modi inherited from the previous administration, there are indeed disagreements of substance between India and the United States – nuclear proliferation, Iran, Pakistan, food stockpiling, intellectual property rights, and the environment to name a few. Not all of these require the highest executive attention and will be hopefully handled at their appropriate levels over the next five years. Modi’s mission, however, was far simpler and yet more difficult – to convince the world’s largest economy and greatest military power that India was ready to talk turkey once again. If pageantry was what would sell the message, then that was what was to be done.


This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on October 02, 2014.

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