This Article is From Nov 22, 2014

Modi's Ambitious, Bold Invite to Obama

(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's invitation to President Barack Obama to visit India as Chief Guest on Republic Day exorcises yet another ghost from the practice of Indian foreign policy.

Political correctness, the perceived risk of being on the same platform as an American president, the nudge-nudge, wink-wink discourse that had Indian leaders saying one thing in private and another in public has quietly been buried. With Modi, what is emerging is a "what you see is what you get" - WYSIWYG, as the familiar abbreviation goes - diplomacy.

That no resident of the White House had been invited for the January 26 parade was always an anomaly. It was partly explained by the fact that India-United States relations had their ups and downs, to put it mildly, in the past seven decades. Yet, those ups and downs were a contributor to the absence of an invitation as well as a symptom of it.

Previous guests on Republic Day have ranged from the prime minister of Bulgaria to the president of Peru. No room was found for the leader of the world's oldest democracy, chief executive of a country that so influenced, among others, BR Ambedkar, chair of the committee that drafted the Constitution that created the Indian republic.

Modi's move follows what can, in hindsight, be called a pattern. While visiting Washington DC, in September, he agreed to a joint statement that was willing to address his host's concerns and actually name American multinational corporations and international foundations that were either facing problems in India or were recognised as allies in Indian government initiatives. In Australia, he was unafraid to mention that Indian and Australian soldiers had been comrades at Gallipoli, a landmark theatre in World War I, and had fought together, albeit in somebody else's war.

The message was implicit. There was military and maritime legacy - admittedly rooted in Empire and its Indian Ocean arrangements - that could be built upon without the presence of a third-party suzerain.

The Nehruvian approach was sourced from a forgetting, even rejection, of the strategic lessons and geographies of the Raj. Under Nehru's successors, the principle of non-alignment crumbled into a reflex anti-Americanism that Indian politicians, including BJP politicians, have found hard to get out of, even as Indian society has evolved. With his invitation to Obama, Modi has made the strongest attempt to change that history.

Having said that, Modi's endeavour is not to rewrite the past as much as to make gains in the immediate and investments for the future. As an economic and strategic partner, he has recognised that India has no alternative to the US, both in the next two years and beyond the Obama presidency. As such, he is very focused on the relationship, not merely on an individual.

Moves have been reciprocal. In recent weeks, Modi has given Obama a concession by saying India will not stand in the way of the president's plan - important for the Obama climate-change legacy - to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a set of key refrigerant coolants. In turn, the US has agreed to language that can sustain India's farm subsidies and food-welfare programmes and allow it to clear the Trade Facilitation Agreement at the World Trade Organisation. Slowly, two transactional heads of government have sorted out niggling problems. Logically, this is a precursor to military deals and specific technology arrangements that the Indian economy needs.

There is a broader message Modi is sending. He could easily have postponed the invitation to the American president to later in his term and gone for a "safer" option in January 2015. In eschewing gradualism, in hooking the ball in the first over itself, he has shown ambition and gumption.

If this is sustained, he will probably move to sort out the nuclear liabilities question - which is holding back nuclear commerce in the country and is hamstrung by an impossible Indian law - far earlier than initially anticipated.

Finally, the promise of the Obama invitation would suggest India is looking to a blockbuster policy season on and around Budget Day 2015. Modi seems to be preparing the ground for something big.

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