Modiji Got Little More Than 'Kem Chho' in Washington

Published: October 01, 2014 11:14 IST
(Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

"Mr Smith Goes to Washington" was a heartwarming 1936 film about a small-town guy, decent and straightforward, who finds himself in the Senate where he leads a courageous battle against corruption and abuse of power. "Mr Modi Goes to Washington" is a somewhat less inspiring tale.

Fresh from his triumphant visit to New York, the new Indian Prime Minister appears to have cut something less of a swathe through the American capital. Far from the hysterical cheers of his fans in Madison Square Garden, and even from the company of actor Hugh Jackman before 60,000 concert goers in Central Park, Mr Modi found himself in the decidedly more prosaic environments of the Beltway, drinking warm water at a Presidential dinner and exchanging talking points with US officialdom. If New York was all flash and celebration, Washington was, as always, about the dull but necessary practices of formal diplomacy.

This time, Mr Modi had very much less to show for himself. If his encounter with Chinese president Xi Jinping was marked by breathless PR about an imminent $100 billion investment, whose reduction to $30 billion amid reports of Chinese military incursions left a sour taste in Indian mouths, expectations of his meetings with President Obama were decidedly pitched at a lower key. This was as it should be: just months ago, Mr Modi featured on the USA's visa-ban list for failing to prevent the Gujarat killings of 2002, and this was more of an opportunity to restore normalcy than to be serenaded by his hosts. And it turned out to be just as well that there were no great expectations from the visit, since there were no great breakthroughs either.

The US is not a country where one returns clutching big-ticket promises of investment: American capitalists are, in any case, much less amenable to government direction than their Chinese counterparts. Nor is Washington, a notoriously worldly-wise city, susceptible to Mr Modi's brand of alliterative rhetoric. The 3 Ds and 4 Ts that are so rapturously received by Mr Modi's Indian audiences leave Washington cold. The Americans have heard great sound-bytes before. What they are looking for is action, not words; results, not hype.

Here, Mr Modi's government still has a long way to go. Mr Modi's promises of translating India's demographics into a manufacturing engine for the world are precisely what the UPA government had promised, but progress in implementing such a vision has been slow, given the enormity of the challenge facing the country. Meanwhile, on concrete issues where Americans want deliverables from India - backing off its obstructiveness on the WTO talks, removing barriers to trade and investment, easing the entry of US nuclear businesses and pharmaceutical companies - Mr Modi had little to offer but words. On WTO, his pieties about India's food security masked a cynical devotion to the profits of the middlemen who are a reliable vote-bank for the BJP; on nuclear liability, the onerous clauses in the current law had been introduced by his own party in Parliament. On pharma, Mr Modi's surrender to American dictates had already been announced before he got there, much to the dismay of Indian patients who will now have to pay much for patented American medicines that they have been getting in generic form at a hundredth the price.

In turn, India too had hoped for some good news from the US, notably in willingness to aid Indian defence production by offering state-of-the-art equipment to Indian manufacturers, and the transfer of environmentally-friendly green technologies at an affordable price. On neither issue was any concrete announcement forthcoming.

Instead, the Indian leader was fobbed off with a poetically-titled Joint Vision Statement, "Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go", a joint op-ed in the names of the US President and Indian Prime Minister, and a greeting in Gujarati at the White House. These are the sort of optics that Washington has long specialized in offering visiting Indian PMs: remember the hype about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh getting the first-ever state banquet of the Obama Administration in 2009? Once again, though, there was little beyond the blather: bromides abounded about democracy, common values, peace, and partnership, weasel words that have long since been sucked of any meaning by overuse.

An American writer in the Wall Street Journal, Michael Kugelman, summarized the visit as "long on pageantry and short on substance". It is hard for the most die-hard Indian chauvinist to disagree.
After the near-hysteria that greeted Mr Modi in New York, Washington was a sobering reminder that the really hard work of building a strategic partnership requires a lot more than skilful public relations.
But it would be wrong to see the Washington leg of Mr Modi's US tour purely as an anti-climax. By going to the US capital, Mr Modi administered a necessary corrective to the negative image many American opinion-makers had had of him. He achieved the basic objective of introducing himself to those who had not been his friends, and to showing American politicians and business leaders that he is a man they can do business with. How much business they will do depends largely on how well he is able to translate his words into tangible outcomes, and the vision of his speeches into actual solutions.

Throughout 2014 so far, we have seen Modi the campaigner. Before the year is over, we will have to start seeing Modi the implementer, delivering the results his rhetoric has promised. Once he does so - if he does so - Washington won't be the only world capital that will give him a much better reception when he comes back.

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