Prime Minister Narendra Modi has once again demonstrated why he remains one of the most interesting politicians in the country. By inviting US President, Barack Obama to the Republic Day celebrations, he has stumped his critics and surprised even his supporters. Last week, he informed the nation of his decision in a tweet, "This Republic Day, we hope to have a friend over... invited President Obama to be the 1st US president to grace the occasion as chief guest."
The White House was quick to accept the invite underscoring the importance Washington attaches to restoring dynamism in US-India relations and the confidence it has in the ability of Modi to deliver. "At the invitation of Prime Minister Modi, the President will travel to India in January 2015 to participate in the Indian Republic Day celebration in New Delhi as the Chief Guest," a statement by the White House read minutes after the Modi tweet.
Modi's move is remarkable for many reasons. Most striking is the sheer audacity with which Modi seems to challenging the foreign policy shibboleths of the past. On the surface, an invite for the US President is not really significant. After all, the US is now one of the closest partners of India. Be it the economy, defence, regional security, or geopolitics, there is today an extraordinary degree of convergence between the interests of the two states. Yet the diffidence of the Congress led-United Progressive Alliance government in acknowledging this openly was a reflection of the outmoded ideological trappings of the past.
Even as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was gung-ho about a robust US-India relationship, his party made sure that in the last four years, ties with the US were not only put on the backburner but deliberate efforts were made to scuttle any progress on issues which were clearly in India's interest.
And now Prime Minister Modi in just a few months has brought about a paradigm shift in the relationship despite having being denied a visa by the US in the past. In his very first month in office, his government scuttled the World Trade Organization's Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) talks. New Delhi held onto its negotiating position and ultimately ended up signing the pact with the US on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Myanmar which indefinitely extends the so-called "peace clause" in the TFA. India's food procurement and subsidy programme cannot now be challenged in any fora till a conclusive deal on the subject is concluded on the issue.
Obama commended the "personal leadership" of Modi in finding a way forward to break the impasse. Here was a leader who was not obstructionist and eager to find ways to move forward.
That was a clear diplomatic win for India, but the Prime Minister decided to take US-India ties a notch higher by inviting Obama to the 2015 Republic Day celebrations - an invite that usually viewed as a celebration of India's close diplomatic partnerships. This will be the first time a US leader will be gracing India's Republic Day celebrations as a chief guest. How ironical when one realizes that China and Pakistan have been part of these celebrations in the past but not the oldest democracy in the world.
The Congress Party would never have been able to accomplish such a feat. The non-alignment cheer-leaders in India must be scrambling at the diplomatic successes of the Prime Minister. For years, the nation has been told that the only way Indian foreign policy establishment can secure Indian interests is by working within the rubric of non-alignment. Just two years back, some of the best and the brightest in the Indian foreign policy establishment came up with a 'new' foreign policy strategy for India. And lo and behold, they titled it 'Non-Alignment 2.0.'
The Modi government is re-shaping Indian foreign policy in some fundamental ways. A self-assured Modi and his team have given up the defensiveness of the past. The administration is confidently engaging with all major powers to secure the best possible outcomes for India.
Where in the name of non-alignment previous governments would not acknowledge its convergence with key partners, Modi and his government are explicit about affirming India's key partnerships. So the US-India joint statement signed during the visit of Modi to Washington was explicit about the US-India convergence in maintaining stability in South China Sea. It didn't matter if the Chinese get annoyed. And after 28 long years, India reaches out to Australia at the highest levels to underscore Australia's importance as a strategic partner of priority. Israel's keenness to have an open relationship with India is too being reciprocated.
With his latest invite to Obama, Modi is signalling that the senseless anti-Americanism of the Indian polity is a thing of the past and there is every likelihood that Obama's visit to India could be transformative.
Modi has been consistently springing surprises on the foreign policy front and is not afraid to take risks. It is remarkable that in just eight months in office, Modi would have hosted the US President, the Russian President, and the Chinese President. Not a bad start for a politician who was considered by his opponents as a provincial leader before his electoral victory! And not bad for a government which has not uttered the word 'non-alignment' even once since assuming office!
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