By Anita Powell
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday launched his official state visit to the White House by acknowledging the one thing that, more than anything, ties the two nations together: their people.
Of the many things the two nations share — among them, the linguistic legacy of British rule, a democratic system, and an emphasis on higher education and research — Modi said people-to-people ties are a top priority, as analysts say the two leaders prepare to “move the relationship to a new level.”
“I am extremely happy that today, immediately after arriving in Washington, D.C., I have the opportunity to meet with such young and creative minds,” Modi said during the first White House event on his packed schedule, a visit to the National Science Foundation.
There, he and first lady Jill Biden met with students from the U.S. and India who described their cutting-edge scientific projects. A Virginia high schooler explained his work in semiconductor manufacturing to the first lady; a doctoral student from Mumbai showed her his underwater robot, which he said can be used in oyster fishing.
Some 2.7 million people of Indian origin live in the United States. Indian nationals make up nearly three-quarters of the United States’ high-skilled guest worker program, and they hold a significant number of student visas at universities.
India’s population this year surpassed that of every other country, according to U.N. estimates, passing 1.4 billion people. That’s more than four times that of the third most populous nation, the United States.
“Friends, today, India and America need a pipeline of talent to maintain the momentum of growth,” Modi said. “While America, on the one hand, has top-class educational institutions and advanced technologies, India, on the other, has the world’s biggest youth talent factory. And therefore, I am confident that the partnership between India and America will definitely prove to be the engine of sustainable and inclusive global growth.”
Defense, emerging technologies
Analysts say both nations are eager to deepen their relationship.
The Biden administration “think[s] they’ve got a lot of serious, concrete deliverables that will move the relationship to a new level,” Richard Rossow, an India-focused analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VOA, based on his conversations with White House staff ahead of the visit. He said many of those deliverables are focused on defense and critical and emerging technologies.
India is equally interested, Irfan Nooruddin, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, told VOA.
“At a time when the United States is really keen to diversify its supply chains away from China — to friend-shore, to use [Treasury] Secretary [Janet] Yellen’s phrase,” he said, ”India would love to be part of the new supply chains that are being built, and these Indian-American corporate leaders and businesspeople are well-suited to see the opportunities in India as part of a greater U.S.-India economic cooperation.”
But as U.S. Representative Ro Khanna told VOA, Washington won’t avoid tough topics. Khanna is the first Indian American to head the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans.
“Of course, we are going to talk about the importance of human rights, free press, of the nation’s commitment to liberal democracy,” he told VOA. “But the core of the meeting is going to be how do we strengthen the partnership.”
Rossow noted that for now, the traffic is flowing in one direction. That, he told VOA, may change.
“You have a lot of Indians who have come here to study and work. Few Americans have chosen India as a place to do studies or to take employment. So, I do think as well, as part of this visit, you might see some announcements that are looking to help balance that a little bit more and get more Americans a bit of exposure to India,” he said.
That appeared to be Modi’s thinking, too, as he praised academic exchange programs between the two nations — and called for more.
“I request all serving and retired people associated with education and research in the U.S. that they spend their vacations in India, the winter break in particular,” he said. “Thus, they can learn about India and also share their knowledge with the new generation.”
That might be easier said than done. The U.S. State Department has assigned India a Level 2 travel advisory — the “exercise increased caution” category. Ethnic violence has heightened in the country over the past year.
Chris Casquejo contributed to this report.