Why The Hurry For Modi's US Visit?

Published: June 12, 2014 10:23 IST
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(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

Not everybody is convinced September is soon enough for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Washington, DC, and for a summit with President Barack Obama.  

There are three broad reasons. First, given the United States' history with Modi and that American diplomats spent the past year trying to convince everybody they met that the BJP's electoral prospects were overhyped, making Uncle Sam wait may not have done much harm.

More substantively, Congressional elections in November would have given a   clearer idea of Obama's strength and room for manoeuvre. In the meantime, Modi could have travelled elsewhere - including to US allies - and built his economic profile, giving his government that much more of an advantage.

The route to the Beltway lies through Wall Street. US business sentiment is generally pro-Modi but letting it solidify - on the basis of actual policy movement in New Delhi - would have been recommended. This too would have led to diplomatic capital for Modi. Admittedly, he can still achieve a lot in the coming months of July and August.

Finally, has enough been done to cultivate Modi-friendly segments within the US? The left-liberal voices against him have been temporarily silenced but have not gone forever. A strategic response to them is necessary. It may have been better to reach out to Israel - using a prime ministerial visit in one direction or the other - before the US trip.

Israel has strong constituencies in the US, including in liberal lobbies that intersect with Jewish and pro-Israel lobbies.

Nevertheless, whatever the misgivings, the visit is now a reality. So what will Obama and Modi talk about? This is not the time to discuss grand strategy. Obama doesn't have the stomach for it and Modi doesn't have the economy. A transactional meeting, with Modi's trademark emphasis on practical steps and specific deals, would offer a refreshing departure from previous Indian prime ministers. They tended to make big-picture statements but were remarkably poor on detail and hesitated to negotiate the nitty-gritty.

Since he loves alliterations, Modi could encapsulate his US mission as a sum of the three Ts: Technology, Trade and Terror. Modi's immediate need is for technology - to get the Indian manufacturing story going - and cheaper international capital for both public and private investment. The US can be a big help in this area and will need to act in specific sectors of the economy that the BJP-led NDA government opens up in the coming weeks.

The trade war the UPA has left as its legacy will also need to be tackled. Beyond the minor quibbles, there is the larger issue of the global trade paradigm. It is undergoing a dramatic shift and Modi will have to confront this at some stage in his prime ministry.

The previous NDA government (1999-2004) took India into the heart of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In the coming years, three interlocking agreements could take away 80 per cent of world trade and make WTO redundant. These are:

 --The Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP, linking Asia-Pacific to the US

 --The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), linking the European Union (EU) to the US

 -- The EU-Japan free trade agreement

India will need to start pondering its relationship with the new trade order and consider joining TPP. It will not be easy; the bargaining will be long and hard. Concessions will have to be sought and offered. For a start, there has to be realism about the challenge.

The UPA government lived in denial. It stuck to WTO shibboleths that are gradually losing traction. If Modi and Obama can begin a preliminary chat on TPP, it may be worth it.

Lastly, there is the third T: terrorism and the Taliban threat in Afghanistan. By the end of 2014, there will be less than 10,000 American troops defending select cities such as Kabul and Kandahar. For the Afghan National Army to hold its positions and stave off the Taliban for as long as possible, the Afghan government will need help, including arms and money. Can India and the US work together to build an international consortium? It would be a good thought to put on the table at the White House.

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