Modi keeps hopes alive

Modi keeps hopes alive


In the end, the sceptics were proved wrong as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US President Donald Trump underlined the strength of the underlying forces that have been bringing New Delhi and Washington closer during Modi’s visit to the US this week.

If Modi could argue that India and the US have overcome “the hesitations of history” under the previous Barack Obama administration, he effortlessly wooed the Trump administration when he suggested that “the convergence of my vision for ‘New India’ and President Trump’s vision for making America great again will add new dimensions to our cooperation.”

The irksome issues of the Paris climate accord and H1B visa were pushed to the sidelines while the myriad issues on which the two nations converge took centre stage. This was a big win for Modi, make no mistake. Many in India had started arguing that a transactional Trump would take the sheen off Indo-US partnership, one which has been difficult to cultivate and on which Modi himself has expended considerable diplomatic energy since coming to office.

But Modi managed to take the visit beyond the sheer symbolism of bear hugs and warm handshakes. He got to know Trump all right but beyond that he managed to steer Trump towards the larger structural realities that have driven India-US relationship since George W Bush declared that America would help India emerge as a global power.

Regional balance of power in Asia was the big focus when Modi and Trump declared their two nations “as responsible stewards in the Indo-Pacific region,” agreeing that a close partnership between the United States and India is central to peace and stability in the region.

Without mentioning China, they reiterated “the importance of respecting freedom of navigation, overflight and commerce throughout the region” and called “upon all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.”

What is even more striking is the subtle reference to China’s Belt and Road Initiative when the two leaders talked of “bolstering regional economic connectivity through the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment; and call on other nations in the region to adhere to these principles.”

The terrorism issue was another big win for India. On the one hand, the US “welcomed further Indian contributions to promote Afghanistan’s democracy, stability, prosperity and security,” while on the other, the two nations reiterated their commitment “to strengthen cooperation against terrorist threats from groups including al-Qaida, Islamic State, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, D-Company, and their affiliates.”

The designation of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen leader Sayeed Salahudeen as a global terrorist by the US just before Modi’s visit will be greatly appreciated by New Delhi as it will strengthen its resolve to take on militancy in the Kashmir Valley.

India, for its part, joined the US in expressing concern regarding North Korea’s “destabilising pursuit of nuclear and ballistic missile programs” and pledged to work together to counter the North’s weapons of mass destruction programmes, “including by holding accountable all parties that support these programmes.”

It is a priority for both leaders and they have indicated that they remain committed to robust counter-terror policies. Modi underscored this in the US when, while addressing a gathering of Indian-Americans in Virginia, he said that India’s surgical strikes on terror launch pads across the LoC last year after the Uri attack were proof that the nation can stand up in its own defence when needed.

He also underlined the challenge that New Delhi has faced in communicating its terrorism challenge with the West when he sarcastically argued that “When India talked of terrorism 20 years back, many in the world said it was a law and order problem and didn’t understand it. Now terrorists have explained terrorism to them so we don’t have to.”

For long where India viewed Pakistan as the epicentre of terrorism, Washington remained reluctant to put pressure on what it argued was a close ally in its ‘war against terrorism.’

Even in the early years of Barack Obama, the US tried to make Pakistan a strategic partner in counterterrorism. But it failed spectacularly. By the end of the Obama administration, senior officials were openly calling for tougher actions against Pakistan. Trump is starting from a position which is much closer to the Indian one.

Defence ties

Against the backdrop of the sale of Sea Guardian Unmanned Aerial Systems to India, the two nations are now looking to further deepen their defence ties.

From enhancing maritime engagement to expanding collaboration on maritime domain awareness, from India’s support for the United States to join as an observer in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium to high-end defence technology transfer, the ambit of India-US defence relationship is an ever expanding one.

Modi has time and again made it clear that he recognises the importance of America in meeting India’s developmental and strategic interests. This time too, he underlined that India “considers the US its primary partner for (its) social and economic transformation.”

While critics in India will see this as a repudiation of India’s non-aligned foreign policy posture, Modi has no esitation in proclaiming the obvious without the diffidence of the past governments. He is at the zenith of his popularity in India and this allows him to take foreign policy risks.

Embracing America wholeheartedly, as Modi has done in his last three years in office, is still a considerable political risk in India. But that’s the road Modi is willing to traverse. From Obama to Trump, it has been a long road but Modi’s success lies in making the journey fruitful for both sides even as the destination remains firmly in sight.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)
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