Washington: Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his three-day visit to Washington starting on Monday by visiting the 'Tomb of the Unknown Soldier' at the Arlington National Cemetery.
As Modi laid a wreath at the cemetery, Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup tweeted:
— Vikas Swarup (@MEAIndia) June 6, 2016
Modi was received by Defence Secretary Ashton Carter at the US' most hallowed military ground. The Arlington sarcophagus contain the remains of service members from the First and Second World Wars, and the Korea and Vietnam wars. The 3rd US Infantry Regiment has famously stood guard over the monument through howling blizzards and hurricanes since 1948.
Modi also paid tribute to astronaut Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman in space and her six crew members who died as the Columbia space shuttle flew apart while re-entering Earth's orbit on 1 February, 2003.
Modi interacted with Chawla's husband, Jean-Pierre Harrison, complimenting him warmly on his Gujarati Kutch embroidered jacket. A charmed Harrison presented Modi with his wife’s biography The Edge of Time. Harrison’s memoir about his wife describes how Punjab Engineering College graduate Chawla emigrated to the US in the 1980s to become an astronaut in 1994. Chawla made her first space flight in 1997 as a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator.
After the wreath laying ceremony, Modi interacted with astronaut Sunita Williams and her father Deepak Pandya. Senior officials from Nasa also met Modi at the Space Shuttle Columbia Memorial. Nasa has a long and successful history of space cooperation with India, beginning in 1963 when India first launched a US-manufactured sounding rocket from Thumba to study Earth’s magnetic equator.
Modi, 65, has kept the most grueling of travel schedules on his five nation tour: He scored a big win in Geneva on Monday for India's bid to be admitted to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). He touched down in Washington later on Monday afternoon to hurl himself into a flurry of activities.
He met with heads of powerful Washington think tanks on Monday to lobby support for India’s NSG bid and calm America’s nuclear hawks.
“Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann has promised India support in its efforts to become a member of the NSG," said Swarup at press conference on Monday in Washington.
India has been shut out for decades from the NSG because of its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Modi added Mexico and Switzerland to his itinerary because both countries had expressed reservations about India being included in the NSG after Delhi applied for membership last month.
Becoming a member of the 48-nation NSG would help India access nuclear fuel and technology. India has been chasing the NSG dream for the last few years and formally moved its application on 12 May. The grouping will take up India's application in its plenary meetings on 9 June in Vienna and 24 June in Seoul.
The Barack Obama-Modi bromance is likely to receive top billing on Tuesday with Modi having a working lunch at the White House. Modi is counting on Obama’s mediation to get the Chinese on board with India’s NSG bid. Unfortunately, ongoing US-China strategic and economic talks have exacerbated tensions: US Secretary of State John Kerry warned China this week that it would be committing “a provocative and destabilising act” if it establishes an air defence zone in the South China Sea.
“Obama will have his work cut out in trying to persuade Chinese president Xi Jinping to support India’s entry into the elite club when the US itself is wading through a sea of contentious issues with the Chinese,” said author and South Asia expert Adam V Larkey.
Chinese opposition to India’s membership into the elite club has an unambiguous Pakistan angle. Days after India made a formal application to be a part of the NSG, Pakistan pulled a copycat move.
On several fronts, Modi has been clearing the ground for closer India-US ties. He has resolved the rift over India’s nuclear liability legislation. Progress has been made in negotiations with Westinghouse for the supply of nuclear reactors.India hopes to increase the share of electricity generated from nuclear sources from 4 percent to 25 percent by 2050.
However, one of Modi's most ambitious plans is to create 100 gigawatts of power from solar power, and an additional 75 from other renewable sources, such as wind. Naturally, the US is integral to the success of Modi’s plan because most of the world's solar technology is produced in the US.
Modi’s US summit is an effort to lock in progress on several fronts, including economic, energy, environment and defense and security issue. Washington and New Delhi have “one of the biggest, fastest moving defence relationships in the world,” quipped former US ambassador Frank Wisner.
This visit is likely to underscore that some of the deepest convergences are on defense issues. Modi’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, comes at a crucial time when the US-India Defence Technology and Partnership bill is moving through Congress. Since the US and India are not treaty allies, the US Senate and House of Representatives have both introduced legislation to institutionalise the US-India security partnership.
During Wednesday’s address, Modi is likely to highlight congressional contributions to US-India relations and progress made under presidents of both parties. The Obama administration and George W Bush administrations have both taken big steps to upgrade the partnership.