By Chintamani Mahapatra*
When Narendra Modi won the landslide victory in 2014 general election, eyebrows were raised in concerned circles about the future of India’s relations with the US. The UPA II government had already witnessed the bottom low in the relationship with the US in the wake of a dysfunctional economic policy, rampant corruption allegations and a diplomatic row sparked by the arrest of an Indian diplomat by the New York police.
Many were watching the Modi wave during bitter election campaigns and some foreign leaders, including those from Europe, had already begun to engage with Modi as the prospective prime minister. But Washington was still very cold towards him. The then Barack Obama administration in the US was not in a hurry to politically engage a man to whom they had denied a visa consecutively for nine years.
Modi-Obama: Expanding the India-US Strategic Partnership
The scenario completely changed when Modi emerged as the leader who would rule India for at least the next five years. Several foreign policy analysts wondered whether Prime Minister Modi would be interested in seriously engaging the US. However, he clearly demonstrated that he thinks out of the box, takes bold steps and springs surprises, when he promptly accepted the invitation to visit the US extended by President Obama during their congratulatory conversations.
Modi’s first visit to the US as India’s prime minister was a grand success. In one stroke he was able to undo the damage caused to the relationship and restored the momentum of an India-US strategic partnership. His address to a huge gathering of Indian Americans in New York, penning of an article in the Wall Street Journal to woo corporate America, one-on-one conversations with a host of CEOs, summit meeting with President Obama, and the release of a joint statement, titled “Chalein Saath Saath” (Lets walk together) had a magical effect in the bilateral relationship. All stalled dialogues, including ones related to energy, defence, trade and investment, resumed in the relationship.
The two governments set an ambitious goal to elevate bilateral trade to the level of US$500 billion, even as defence trade spectacularly picked up and India was able to purchase several high-tech weaponries. Military exercises expanded, both in number and sophistication. The two countries displayed their resolve to take defence and security ties to newer heights by seeking joint research, co-development and co-production of defence items in India.
Prime Minister Modi and President Obama met several times at various international forums and the chemistry between the two leaders became exemplary. This was certain to push the momentum of the cooperative relationship.
The two countries have openly displayed their determination to combat international terrorism, particularly groups like the Islamic State (IS) and the Pakistan-backed terrorist outfits. More significantly, the two countries discussed China’s muscle flexing; while this might have surely annoyed the Chinese government, it spoke volumes about the new assertiveness in India’s foreign policy. And although India and the United States are not interested in forging an alliance against China or in taking measures that would appear to be for the containment of China, they were no longer reticent in speaking against developments that would adversely affect the freedom of navigation and provisions of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to be credited for yet another diplomatic innovation in India-US relations – President Obama was invited to be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day celebration in January 2015. Never before had an Indian Prime Minister thought of inviting an American president to this function, albeit visitors from Pakistan and even China have had this opportunity in past. Even though, this was a symbolic gesture, its significance cannot be underestimated in the field of diplomacy.
One of the key developments during the Modi-Obama summit in January 2015 was the release of a Delhi Declaration of Friendship and a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region, elevating the geographical space of India-US strategic partnership. Such comprehensive defence and security cooperation and the expansion of the geographical areas for potential bilateral cooperation were the achievements of the Modi government.
Modi-Trump: Challenges and Prospects
The election of Donald Trump as the 45th US president has brought new challenges to the Modi government. The Indian American community in the US played an important role during the 2016 presidential election campaign. Candidate Trump was rarely critical of India, as compared to his critical remarks on China and Pakistan and a host of other countries. Once Trump won the election, the Modi government showed no complacency in seeking to build bridges with the new occupant in the White House.
India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar promptly touched bases with their counterparts and other relevant officials to keep the strategic partnership, trade and investment ties on track. Several of the the Trump administration’s policies – including his economic policy, guided by the “America First” principle, social policy to restrict immigration, transactional strategic approach towards allies and partners, initiatives to raise visa fees for foreign workers, reduction/elimination of tax incentives to companies hiring foreign workers and the decision to walk away from the Paris Climate Accord – pose enormous challenges to the Modi government.
Despite the hurdles that these developments will bring to the bilateral relationship, the fundamentals of India-US strategic partnership are sound and durable. Both leaders, Trump and Modi, consider terrorism as the principal threat to their national security as well as to global peace and stability. Moreover, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and an attempt to build a new colonial empire through the One Belt, One Road initiative have alerted India and the US to deal with it through a coordinated approach without resorting to unmanageable conflict. Significantly, the bipartisan consensus in the US is in favor of strengthening the strategic partnership with India and the national political consensus in India also favors strong ties with the US. Thus there may be periodic turbulence between India and the US on certain issues, but the new paradigm of their bilateral relations in the post-Cold War and terrorism-ridden scenario is not going to face any existential threat.
* Chintamani Mahapatra
Rector and Professor, JNU, & Columnist, IPCS
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