US visit: Modi hangs tough
In his first trip to the United States as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi gives little away
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
From the standpoint of foreign policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be engaged in a furious game of speed chess—where only outcomes are analysed, not moves.
Within 100 days of coming to power, he notched up quick trips to Bhutan, Nepal and the Brics summit at Fortaleza, Brazil. This was followed by a delayed trip to Japan where he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A few days later, Modi was receiving the President of China, Xi Jinping, in Ahmedabad and subsequently figuring out how to countenance his presence with an intrusion by Chinese troops into disputed territory.
Modi works hard on each engagement or event and seemed to have put in extra effort for his visit to New York and a summit meeting with President Barack Obama in Washington. Immediately after taking office, he met Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and then Secretary of State John Kerry, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Besides getting to know him better, these officials tried to convince Modi that he should allow the passage of the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) that India had opposed in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). India’s submission was that it would allow its passage only when its concerns pertaining to food security and its stockpiling were met. The US and other Western nations said passage of the TFA would generate trade worth $1 trillion and all the countries would benefit. Indian negotiators thought differently and perceived exaggeration in the figure. India, in their reckoning, stood to lose far more if it could not protect its interests.
Modi stuck to his position, conveying the message to the Western powers that he will be tough on core issues. During his meeting with Kerry, he is learnt to have asked a question that appeared to have thrown the latter off: “What is the US’s vision of its relationship with India?” Sources claim that, save for stressing the imperative of signing the TFA, Kerry was caught on the wrong foot. The same question was fielded to other officials too, which caused some rethink in the US State department. There is a context to this question; the earlier Republican administration had spelt out quite cogently how it perceived India. Condoleezza Rice had delivered a promise to turn India into a superpower when the Congress party was in power.
To ensure that the focus of the US administration remained firmly on him and not on any of his ministers, Modi denied permission for any of them to travel to Washington. A US official told this writer that while all their top Secretaries travelled to India after the new government was sworn in, no Indian minister travelled to their country. “If you don’t reciprocate then our gaze could shift to some other country,” he said. He gave the example of Hagel, who got busy with the decision to bomb Iraq during his trip to New Delhi.
When Modi reached New York, the Indian expatriate community — mostly from Gujarat — was out in large numbers to provide him a welcome to remember. Quite like his hugely successful election campaign, much thought went into choreographing Modi’s meetings, programmes and public engagements. What seemed discordant was the summons issued by a New York court for Modi’s alleged involvement in the genocidal Godhra riots in 2002, but the US administration quickly stepped in to assure the Indian government that, as the guest of the US government, he would be buffered from any legal action. This is not the first time that an Indian politician has been issued such summonses by the New York court. In the past, Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Kamal Nath all had to face the wrath of an angry lawyer. Be that as it may, the court summons endeavoured to bring to the fore an issue that had long denied Modi a US visa.
If nothing, Modi is a tough guy. Unfazed by the court summons, he spoke in Hindi at the United Nations General Assembly to a sparse audience. Although he had a prepared text, true to his wont he slipped into extempore speaking and conveyed an impression of informality that was scoffed at by many who swear by adherence to conventions. Though his speech was really not bad, it did not set the Hudson afire.
Besides addressing diplomats and intelligentsia at the Council of Foreign Relations, he went for a short while to Central Park where a concert was taking place. Like a rock star, he hugged actor Hugh Jackman and went about conversing with teenyboppers who had little clue who he was and what he was doing, clad in some funny Indian clothes. What is truly remarkable about Modi is that such strange circumstances or diverse audiences do not really throw him off. After blessing the young with a heavily Gujarati accented “May the force be with you” he casually got off the stage. While the mainstream media in the US may not have noticed his walk in Central Park, comedy show anchors like John Oliver and Jon Stewart did not spare him.
It was during his much publicised meeting at Madison Square Garden, hosted by Indian Americans, that Modi really came into his own. Choreographed like a political party convention with dance, music and balloons, Modi spoke for two hours, unravelling his vision for the country and what he expected from non-resident Indians. He promised a life-long visa for People of Indian Origin and other concessions. He also said he would try to make the “India of their dreams”. He got thunderous applause from many of those who have no intentions of burning their US passports or green cards and taking the next flight home to India, but it made them feel good to see an Indian leader willing to make them feel nice about their country of origin. There were about 20,000 well-heeled Indians cheering him in the stadium and there were a few thousand protesting against his involvement in the Gujarat killings and so on. The excitable horde of Indian TV channel anchors may have ignored the presence of these protesters, but the social media could not be muted.
Armed with the cheers and accolades of thousands of Indian Americans plus some 40-odd Congressmen, Modi was ready for a summit meeting with President Obama. There were a couple of one-to-one engagements. How did Modi fare with a US President who is considered a serious intellectual? Although Obama took him to the Martin Luther King memorial to perhaps explain to him why the Black civil rights activist’s life and teachings were so important when it comes to making American society more inclusive, insiders say the meeting was at best “getting to know each other”.
In the joint statement there is again a mention of pluralism, which should be seen in the context of all the misgivings many have in India after the BJP’s ascent to power. There is nothing really in the joint statement that will excite those who were looking for a breakthrough, but the meeting between the two leaders may have helped in building some understanding after months of suspicion and recrimination after the incident involving Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.