Modi’s US visit comes at a time when bilateral interests are strongly aligned and will likely lead to a breakthrough in economic relations
US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in Indonesia, November 15, 2022 (Photo: Reuters)
A crowd of about 5,000 Indian-Americans who will greet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden on the lawns of the White House on June 22 will be living proof of how deeply the two nations are invested in a partnership that has overcome what Modi once described as the “hesitancies of history”. The crush on the lawns, with the US administration handing out the invitations, is in excess of numbers that might greet foreign leaders who call on the president in the course of official engagements. As it prepares to host Modi on a state visit, the Biden administration saw no reason why the guest’s popular appeal should not add a dash of colour and energy to the deliberations at the White House.
Public engagements and interactions will be a constant during Modi’s US visit which begins on June 20 when the prime minister will leave India and arrive in America on the same date. Taking advantage of the nine-and-a-half hour time difference is a small but regular aspect of Modi’s foreign travels. Apart from devoting some time to resting, the prime minister can be expected, as he usually does, to utilise the long flight to catch up on urgent work and discuss aspects of the US visit. After a brief interaction following his arrival, Modi will begin his visit by leading the International Day of Yoga at the United Nations (UN) on June 21 which, according to UN officials, is expected to be a big deal. It will indeed be an impressive show as most UN member states and agencies will be represented. New York Mayor Eric Adams, a leading Democrat, and other US political figures from nearby areas are expected to join the yoga event, reflecting what Indian officials say is a strong bipartisan consensus on ties with India.
The early-morning yoga event has more than symbolic value. Though essentially intended to leverage India’s association with yoga, the widespread participation of UN members and prominent members of the Indian diaspora will present a counterpoint to allegations—most recently aired by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during his visit to the US—about “democratic backsliding” in India. The scope of the participation makes it evident that neither India nor its leader is considered off-limits even as groups espousing various causes lobby Republicans and Democrats against Modi. Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s claims that India tried to block the platform during the anti-farm laws stir—vehemently denied by the Indian government—is seen as part of a narrative consistently used to attack the Modi government. Anti-India groups like Khalistan advocates and the Indian American Muslim Council, with links to former members of the Pakistani military and the Pakistani deep state, are pretty much part of the toolkit. Events like the one scheduled at the UN, though not meant explicitly for such a purpose, serve to expose the limits of divisive propaganda.
The prime minister will leave for Washington soon after the event on the UN premises and when he reaches the capital he is expected to hold discussions and meet business leaders before a private dinner hosted by Biden and his wife Jill. The gesture is seen as special, considering the state dinner scheduled for the very next evening. Apart from Modi being a regular visitor to the US since he assumed office in 2014, the prime minister has interacted closely with successive presidents beginning with Barack Obama with whom he wrote joint op-eds. He has met Biden several times, most recently at the G8 meeting in Tokyo. Despite recent efforts to improve ties with China, the Biden administration has embarked on a policy to strengthen partnerships that will act to counter-balance Beijing’s expansionism. Being seen as reluctant or half-hearted in dealing with China will be a serious political drawback, one that Republicans will not hesitate to use to their advantage. The discussions between the leaders, interspersed with a walk through the Oval Office, are expected to be serious and substantial.
THE POLITICAL DIRECTIONS from the principals are evident going by the meetings between top officials like National Security Advisors Jake Sullivan and Ajit Doval. The breakthrough areas, where the relationship is expected to be elevated to the next level, tightening the India-US strategic embrace, will be in hi-tech, defence, space, and science. Many aspects come under the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET). Quantum cooperation, semi-conductor development, 5G and 6G, and bio-tech are some of the cutting-edge areas. There are strong indications that the General Electric proposal to co-manufacture fighter jet engines with Hindustan Aeronautics might be sealed during the visit. This will be a significant development as the deal will involve a complete transfer of technology with the engines being used in Indian-made Tejas Mark II fighters. While its defence startups have been gathering pace, India lags in avionics and related technology needed to produce topline fighters with superior armaments, endurance, and radar capabilities.
India does not formally consider itself as an ally of the US and has avoided arrangements with a markedly military signature like AUKUS, but the political convergence over the need to prevent China from turning the Indo-Pacific into its zone of influence has become increasingly pronounced. Indian commentators have noted that China is acutely sensitive to the deepening of India-US ties and primarily sees its relations with India in this light. With border issues unresolved, China remains at the top of India’s concerns and the Biden-Modi bonhomie reflects this as much as other facets of the relationship. The technology and intelligence component of the ties, along with frequent land and sea joint military exercises, show how the profile of the relations has changed in the past couple of decades. The India-US nuclear deal, vigorously pushed by the then US President George W Bush and signed in 2008, broke new ground. But thereafter complications in the Indian legislation prevented US commercial participation in India’s nuclear energy programme while incidents like the arrest and humiliating treatment meted out to Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade for alleged visa violations in 2013 introduced a very bitter note to ties, particularly as the complicity of some US staff in New Delhi came to light. Under Modi, India has pressed Washington to make procedures like visa applications and interviews smoother and there has been progress on this front although much more work needs to be done. Indian diplomacy also has sought to make itself more accessible to Indians and people of Indian origin abroad.
The strains that emerged over India’s refusal to join the sanctions or vote against Russia after the Ukraine war broke out have been largely resolved, and while the conflict is certain to figure in the talks and the joint declaration, it will not be a point of discord. The US and most Western nations have accepted that countries like India will not break their traditional ties with Russia—and certainly not impose energy shortages on themselves—even as they do not support Moscow’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. India’s success in importing oil and gas, and reselling refined products, has been crucial in keeping domestic inflation in check. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, coming as it did just as the world was emerging from the Covid shock, could not have been worse timed and might well have had a calamitous impact on the Indian economy as it did in the case of many African nations and in India’s neighbourhood. The latest economic data which revealed that India grew at 7.2 per cent in 2022-23 makes it an obvious destination and a growth partner, one that also broadly shares America’s security perspectives. The indications are that Biden’s intent to make the Indian partnership a defining one places in perspective the US’ recent exchanges with China as more tactical exercises intended to prevent military mishaps rather a deeper reset, let alone a détente.
Modi has struck a rapport with presidents as different as Obama, Trump, And Biden. This is because he understands the centrality of America’s cooperation for India to achieve the next set of goals on its journey to become a developed nation
On June 22, Modi will be one of the few leaders to have addressed a joint session of Congress twice. In 2016, he had in a similar address spoken of how India and the US had travelled a great distance in their relationship and could now look forward to getting rid of the hesitations of the past. The well-received speech helped set the relationship on a surer course at a time when neither the India-China border tension nor the conflict in Eurasia was anywhere on the horizon. This time, the incentives to ensure that differences remain in the background or under control while synergies accelerate the cooperation between the two countries are fairly evident. The day ends with the gala at the White House state dinner where again the list of invitees has been drawn up by the American side. The power turnout at the dinner—Biden told Modi in Tokyo that he was being pestered for tickets—should again reinforce the prime minister’s reputation as a much sought-after leader. In the Covid recovery phase, when leaders began travelling again, Modi held fruitful discussions with nations, such as the Nordic community, which have often commented on India’s politics. They did not have much to say about decisions like the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370. It was not that lobbies critical of Modi had fallen silent, but nations understood the domestic support for such decisions and also noted that doomsday prophesies of violent insurrections did not come to pass.
In the US, too, Modi can be expected to speak on measures taken by his government to improve the business climate and the resilience of the Indian economy. Indeed, India’s decisions not to go in for cash infusions and instead rely more on a higher and faster capital expenditure proved to be crucial calls. The improvement in private consumption and capital formation, along with a boost in services export, has come as a thumbs-up for the government’s economic management. The confluence of political and economic factors, as also the current alignments in geopolitics, can make Modi’s visit to the US well-timed and rewarding. The schedule for June 23 features an important event at the Kennedy Center where Modi will meet CEOs and other “thought leaders” to share his views and perceptions about India’s development and opportunities. The interactions with influencers and business leaders are an important part of Modi’s assignments in Washington which also include lunch with Vice President Kamala Harris. The prime minister will address a diaspora event before he leaves the US on June 23. The interaction will not be as large as the one in Sydney recently but will provide Modi a platform to inform the diaspora about the nature of his deliberations with the US president and the outcomes. The US-based organisers suggested Modi travel to Chicago for a diaspora interaction but the time schedules dictated that Washington be the preferred location. Dr Bharat Barai, a well-known oncologist and a key member of the US-based organisers of the prime minister’s programme, told the media that scheduling issues came in the way of a diaspora event in Chicago that could have seen as many as 40,000 attendees. Well-regarded by the Democratic establishment, Dr Barai has been a regular at India-related events and conferences apart from those associated with the Indian embassy.
India has sought to expand its diplomatic footprint in keeping with the growth of its interests and involvement with different economies, and a wider dispersal of its citizens and diaspora. This has meant maintaining a web of relations, starting from the neighbourhood where India has tried to present itself as a willing and generous partner to becoming part of several multilateral arrangements. It has identified nations like Japan and Australia as key partners and broken new ground with the oil-rich nations of the Gulf and Middle East where the Indian outreach had often not looked much beyond posting Muslim diplomats as ambassadors. Everywhere the diaspora has been a constant even as bitter domestic disagreements over the Modi government’s policies have found a reflection abroad as well. But the ideological opposition to BJP has taken on other, more dangerous forms, as through the propagation of narratives about RSS-Hindutva during the Leicester rioting in 2022 when the role of extremist Islamist handles using anti-Hindu slurs came to the fore. The political fight took on a different aspect as the exhortations of Pakistani and Islamist handles put Indians, both travellers and persons of Indian origin, at risk as they were identified as legitimate targets. Such incidents have not occurred in the US where Indian and Pakistani-origin populations do not live in such proximity or large numbers. But the actions of Khalistanis and other anti-India elements pose fresh challenges to Indian diplomacy. Through his diaspora interactions, Modi usually seeks to present a forward-looking, less fractious agenda, even as he does not shy away from attacking rivals for encouraging divisiveness.
The breakthrough areas, where the relationship is expected to be elevated to the next level, tightening the India-US strategic embrace, will be in hi-tech, defence, space, and science. Many aspects come under the initiative on critical and emerging technologies
The meeting with Biden and discussions involving business heads will, to some extent, set the stage for the G20 summit later this year. Deepening differences over the Ukraine war with Russia and China backing away from the agreed text of the Bali statement last year have made consensus elusive. But the anticipation that the war and the divisions within G20 would devalue India’s presidency might be overstated. While it is true that there is no guarantee that the meeting of leaders in Delhi will yield a statement, the summit is still some time away. On the way back from the US, the prime minister may halt for another country visit. There are reports that he could visit Cairo, but officials said the itinerary is still being worked out. Could there be another, surprise destination? This is not clear at this point of time. While India balances its relations with the rest of the world and works around contradictions when they manifest themselves, there is recognition of the salience of the partnership with the US. Modi has struck a rapport with presidents as different of persuasion as Obama, Donald Trump, and Biden. This is because he understands the centrality of America’s cooperation for India to achieve the next set of goals on its journey to become a developed nation. On more than one occasion the US has helped India in its battle against terrorism and provided useful intelligence that prevented terror attacks. US posturing and commentary on China’s aggression on the Line of Actual Control—even though this is not expected, nor does India want, to translate into boots on the ground—forced Beijing to think twice about upping the ante. India will not be a distant and unaffected player should hostilities break out in the Taiwan Strait. All in all, the US will remain India’s partner No 1 for the foreseeable future.