Modi's US Trip All Optics and Pageantry? Incorrect

Published: October 02, 2014 08:22 IST
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(Harsh V. Pant is Professor of International Relations at King's College London.)

There will be a temptation to view the outcome of the Indian Prime Minister's five-day visit to the US through the prism of concrete deliverables on the US-India bilateral front.

The Congress Party has already expressed its disappointment and has attacked the PM for reducing diplomacy to "event management" and trying to create an atmosphere through 'cheerleaders.' Many such commentaries are likely to follow in the coming days.

After all, the differences between the US and India continue to remain robust on a range of key issues. American businesses have been concerned about various issues including high tariffs, retrospective tax policies, intellectual property rights protection, and foreign direct investment (FDI) restrictions in various key sectors. Indian concerns have revolved around visa barriers and technology transfer restrictions.

Discussions on a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT), which aims to increase the present US-India trade of around $100 billion to $500 billion has not moved forward despite its launch in 2012.

India is worried about the impending US departure from Afghanistan, and the United States views India as a less-than-helpful partner in managing global crises from Ukraine to the Middle East.

India has refused to lend support to American efforts against the Islamic State.

And so this narrative would suggest Modi's visit was more about the optics than any real substantive outcome.

Understandable though such an approach may be, it is a highly myopic view of what Modi actually managed to accomplish in his trip to the US. What Modi has done is something very fundamental and potentially transformative. He has made a case for India on the global stage by giving Delhi a uniquely Indian voice. Here's a politician who has risen through the rank and file of Indian polity through sheer hard work and his outlook towards the world has a distinctly Indian flavour.

When Modi gifts the Gita to foreign dignitaries or when he talks of an International Yoga Day, when he openly talks of the festival of Navratras as a period of regeneration or when he only sips warm water at a dinner in the White House, Modi seems to be making a case to the wider world that India should be considered on her own terms.

Here's a supremely confident leader of the world's largest democracy who has won one of the biggest political mandates in recent history. And he is not shy of showcasing it and leveraging it to India's advantage.

It is this decisive mandate that allows Modi to articulate a vision of US-India ties as a relationship between two equals - if America has a unique ability to absorb people from all parts of the world argues Modi, Indians too have a unique ability to become an integral part of various societies to which they migrate and contribute to them in substantive ways.

Modi's self-assurance, rooted in his pride in Indian culture, also allows him to win over the young cosmopolitan crowd at the Madison Square Gardens. Non Resident Indians are yearning for global recognition of their culture and nation. He is ambitious and makes no bones about it. This makes him an icon for the youth who want an India and its politicians to reach for the moon.

When Modi says that by 2022, he will ensure that every Indian has a home to live in, daunting as it may sound, they believe him. With his unprecedented outreach to the Indian American community, he is trying to instill in them a sense of pride and confidence so that they become a force that India will be able to leverage even more effectively in the future for its foreign and domestic policy agenda.

If he tried to galvanize the Indian corporate sector to help him realize his 'First Develop India" vision, he tried to rally the American corporate sector by underlining his determination to use the Supreme Court decision on coals blocks allocation "into an opportunity to move forward and clean up the past." His riposte to Pakistan at the United Nations (UN), asking Islamabad to create an "appropriate environment" for serious bilateral dialogue "without the shadow of terrorism" was firm and unambiguous. Even his message to the UN was tough suggesting the imperative of reforms for strengthening the global body or face the risk of becoming "irrelevant."

And it is this confidence that he has been able to inject into the US-India narrative as well. Though Obama has described America's relationship with India as "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, one which will be vital to US strategic interests in Asia-Pacific and across the globe," the relationship has been losing traction in recent years under a rudderless UPA government in Delhi and an Obama administration consumed by multiple crises around the world.

Despite personal sensitivities, when an opportunity presented itself after his election victory, Modi lost no time in reaching out to Washington, agreeing for a bilateral summit meeting with Obama in Washington. Modi showed his trademark decisiveness in attempting to mend Indo-US ties, underlining the significance of the United States in Indian foreign policy priorities.

Foreign policies do not get transformed with a single visit. Sustained follow-up action and resources are required to have a long-term impact. And what Modi has been able to achieve during his visit to the US is to lay the foundation for some of the long-term changes in the way India is likely to conduct its dealings with the world in the coming years. Surely that goes beyond mere pomp and pageantry!

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