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Mr Modi goes to Washington

Mr Modi goes to Washington

India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, is winding up what may be a momentous visit to the US, even if it has been somewhat overshadowed by a whole litany of global political crises. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look.

In the midst of about a half dozen simultaneous world crises – the fighting in Ukraine, the conflict between Israel-Gaza, the war against IS, the demonstrations in Hong Kong, the spreading Ebola epidemic, and a couple of others now lost in the shuffle – Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, has made a major trip to New York City and Washington to give – and get – some love. Even though Modi’s visit has been somewhat overshadowed by those on-going political crises, it has been an important trip, part Bollywood, part hard-sell for more foreign direct investment, part an effort to engage with the Obama administration after several years of languishing relations, and part promotion of India’s new investor-friendly government. And just coincidentally, it brings the leadership of the world’s two largest democracies together.

As the Washington Post commented on the visit, “The administration’s renewed interest in India – Secretary of State John F Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel have visited since Modi’s landslide victory in May – comes as Obama tries to reinvigorate his Asia policy ahead of a trip to the region in November. Rekindling the relationship with India is part of a US effort to hedge against the broadening economic and military clout of China, whose President Xi Jinping recently met with Modi in New Delhi.”

But, if one had been talking about Modi nearly a decade ago, it would have been to note his inability to score a US visa as a result of charges he had had a major hand in some violent and deadly, religiously-flavoured rioting between the country’s Hindu and Muslim communities in his native state of Gujarat in 2002, while he was that state government’s chief executive. But that was then, and this is now. Modi is now India’s prime minister following a landslide victory by his Bharatiya Janata Party over the Congress Party – and pretty much everybody else in India’s May election.

Now, only four months into his term of office, Modi has been giving the impression of a man possessed by a vision of remaking India: turning it into a nation vigorously pursuing FDI; smashing the old “licence raj” and the interminable and virtually inexplicable red tape that restrained business; improving living standards; and trumpeting the country’s scientific prowess. Simultaneously.

Modi’s visit to the UN, Madison Square Garden, the White House and all the other stops fortuitously happened to come just a few days after India’s space programme had scored an extraordinary interplanetary success – one that got the world to sit up and take notice. India’s Martian Orbiter Mission, the MOM, successfully entered into its planned orbit around the distant red planet – in India’s very first try at this extraordinarily difficult scientific and technological feat. And it came at about a tenth of the cost of the typical NASA planetary mission.

A sufficient number of other Mars missions from other nations have failed in their purposes that some people have begun to argue that getting a spacecraft to orbit Mars could often be a thoroughly jinxed undertaking. In that view, even attempting a Martian mission was something like shouting “Macbeth!” backstage, just before the Scottish play begins. Plain bad luck.

A cynic might add that India’s MOM had been significantly aided by Nasa in the actual management of the flight and that the MOM itself, because it was rather lightly stocked with remote sensing instrumentation, would add relatively little to the stock of knowledge about Mars. Regardless, the MOM has become the perfect advertisement for Modi’s new India, with its slightly awkward tagline, ‘Make in India’, as well as an excellent punt for the country’s truly cost-effective space programme, one with a sign on the door effectively saying that its low-cost rockets were “available for rent or buy”.

Even before Modi was off to New York for his speech at the UN, he had welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping for a state visit – including an unusual initial meeting in Modi’s own hometown, rather than the more usual, full-dress, stuffy treatment in the capital. This seems to have been a far cry from the usual protocol-heavy version of the usual run of state visits to India and it seems, in retrospect to be indicative of Modi-style international relations.

Modi’s diplomats already seem to have been given firm marching orders to get out the word that there is a new sheriff in town – in New Delhi. Their brief is that Modi’s governmental reforms are going to cut back on all that “license raj” red tape (indeed, it had already done so in his first 100 days in office); they would open up major industrial sectors to FDI; and they would streamline and digitalise dealing with the country’s e-government on the part of foreign investors.

At a seminar in Johannesburg espousing this new gospel, high commission speakers offered a long, detailed list of how this and that regulation had already been done away with by the new Modi government; the details of the burgeoning industrial and development corridors that will crisscross the country (and that are being designed and planned with the assistance of the Japanese); and the skinny on the proactive approach India is going to carry out so as to attract FDI – even from South Africa. Actually, maybe that’s not such a silly idea, come to think about it. As it becomes increasingly difficult to earn a good return on investment for many investors, there might well be a lot of loose capital here, looking for a good, new, very remunerative home.

Meanwhile, back with Modi’s visit to the US, he naturally did his obligatory speech at the UN, but the real buzz in New York City came from that mega-event at Madison Square Garden with its crowd of about 18,000 people (mostly South Asian-Americans) while many others tried but couldn’t score a ticket to this gathering. At that event, Modi told his adoring crowd, “America is the oldest democracy in the world. India is the biggest democracy in the world. The entire world has come and settled down in India and the people of India have gone and settled down in the entire world.”

The entire event had lots of dancing and elaborate staging, as well as the presence of last year’s Miss America. Describing the plans for this event, the New York Times commented, “Tapping into a level of interest they never expected, Dr Barai and the group organising the $1.5 million event, the Indian American Community Foundation, have mobilised more than 400 organisations and individuals. Bollywood stars offered their talents, but organisers wanted to keep the focus on Indian-Americans. The hosts will be last year’s Miss America winner, Nina Davuluri, and a PBS anchor, Hari Sreenivasan. Anjali Ranadivé, the daughter of Vivek Ranadivé, owner of the Sacramento Kings basketball team, will sing the American national anthem, while L Subramaniam, a violinist, and Kavita Krishnamurthy, a classical singer, will perform the Indian anthem.”

That was the fun bit for New York City, but Modi also had a full schedule of business and policy explication meetings. These included tête-à-têtes with some of the masters of the universe from some major banks and high tech businesses, as well as a presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a key venue for reaching out to the foreign policy opinion maker audience in the US. At the CFR, Modi argued that India, the world’s second-most populous country, would be mounting a real challenge to China for primacy in this century, saying “Whether it belongs to India or China is something people are debating.”

And on Wednesday, as Americans open their morning papers, they should find an op-ed co-signed by Barack Obama and Narendra Modi, extolling the virtues of greater co-operation. If one wanted to hammer home the message of a new India on the hunt for engagement with the international business world, and on the prowl for closer ties with the US, things like this should surely help that along.

Modi and Obama also had a private dinner at the White House on their schedule, as well as a slate of discussions on economic and regional security issues. Describing the discussion agenda, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said, “We’ll focus on regional issues, including current developments in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, where India and the United States can work together with partners toward a positive outcome. The president himself looks forward to working with the prime minister to fulfil the promise of the US-India strategic partnership for the benefit of citizens in both our countries.”

Modi also gets a luncheon at the state department’s formal dining room on Wednesday hosted by Vice President Joe Biden, as well as meetings with members of Congress and other high-flyers in the Washington power elite. The fact that Modi is carrying out a religious fast during this period might have made the dining arrangements more complicated, but US government officials said Modi’s hosts took his religious observances fully into consideration in their planning.

Of course there have been a few complicating wrinkles in all this public bonhomie. In the international economic policy discussions, there may well be more disagreement than agreement over aspects of intellectual property protection as well as protectionist policies designed – according to their critics – to shield inefficient Indian agriculture from cheaper foreign imports. Moreover, just the other day, a federal court in New York issued a summons to Modi demanding he reply to a lawsuit that accuses him of various human rights abuses. (Heads of state have immunity from lawsuits in American courts, however.)

Nevertheless, US-based human rights advocates are concerned that on-going religious persecution in India will get not get much time on the agenda, given the visit’s firm focus on economic and security interests. For example, John Sifton, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, argued that in recent years in India, there has been “a clear trend toward closing the space that civil society, journalists, citizens have to speak freely. It’s not Russia, it’s definitely not China, but it’s also not what you’d expect in a modern democracy”.

But don’t expect too much of a focus on questions like those, or even that very nasty bit of business of the Indian gang rape crisis that has garnered so much dreadful press internationally. This trip for Modi is all about finding ways to knit the US-India relationship more tightly together after several years of drift (and, of course, the task of finding new investors to participate in the Indian economy).

Beyond the usual run of investment, IHS Global chief economist Rajiv Biswas said India is looking to the United States to help it modernise its armed forces and develop its domestic defence industry. As Biswas explains, “For Prime Minister Modi, the key priorities during his visit to the US are the economic aspects, to build up the trade and investment relationship, to persuade US multinationals that India is on the rise again, the economy is on the mend, that he is going to be much more dynamic than the previous government in dealing with new approvals for investments. And also to strengthen defence co-operation with a number of major negotiations now very well advanced particularly for a deal of $2.5 billion US dollars for the Indian military purchase of Apache and Chinook military helicopters, but also other major deals are under negotiation as well.”

Biswas adds that India is one of the globe’s fastest-growing consumer markets, with total consumer spending forecast to rise from $1.1 trillion in 2013 to $4.3 trillion 10 years later. Overall, bilateral trade hit $63.7 billion in 2013, just a bit less that India’s trade with China. However, when trade in services is added to the total, the overall bilateral trade relationship reached about $94 billion last year. Not nothing, that.

Beyond the obvious commercial benefits, there is, after all, a commonality of purpose in finding ways to mutually bolster the two nations in the face of a surging China. In addition, there is a desire for finding the best way to build an overarching relationship for the South Asian region as the US continues to draw down its military forces from Afghanistan (especially if some US troops may now linger there under a new status of forces arrangement there). In all of this, it will be unlikely for there to be much talk of Brics. Modi seems a very practical man and on this trip he has come to where the capital to invest can be found. As a result, his prime task is to convince all those would-be investors that his part of the world is where they want to put their money.DM

Read more:

  • A Leadership Moment for India and the US from the Brookings Institution website

  • India-U.S. Relations in 14 Charts and Graphics at the Brookings Institution

  • Modi’s visit a chance for Obama to improve relationship, enlist India in his Asia policy at the Washington Post

  • India’s Modi to Meet President Obama at White House at the VOA website

  • White House prepares special reception for Indian prime minister Modi at The Guardian

  • Indian Leader Narendra Modi, Once Unwelcome in U.S., Gets Rock Star Reception at the New York Times

  • Narendra Modi US Visit: Indian Prime Minister To Have Dinner With Obama After Meeting CEOs, Hillary Clinton at the International Business Times

Photo: US President Barack Obama (2-R) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2-L) of India, flanked by translators, shake hands with one another in front of members of the news media following their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington DC, USA, 30 September 2014. Obama and Modi met to discuss a broad range of issues including current developments in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

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