Don't buy the hype: Modi's US visit will be all show and of little substance

Many people are thrilled with Modi’s visit to the US, especially given the theatrics of the earlier visa denial. But should we expect much from this trip?

Rajeev Srinivasan September 29, 2014 08:38:25 IST
Don't buy the hype: Modi's US visit will be all show and of little substance

Many people, especially Indian-origin residents, are thrilled with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US, especially given the theatrics of the earlier visa denial. But, atmospherics aside, should we expect much from this trip? As I write this, the PM has already landed in the US to an excited welcome by Non-Resident Indians in New York. He has delivered his address to the United Nations General Assembly. But right on cue, there has been a ‘summons’ issued against him by some fringe group; apparently the law does not permit such against a visiting Head of State, but the intent is to poison Indo-US relations.

This has been a busy month diplomatically for the Indian government with Japan, Australia, China and finally the US on the radar. Fittingly, perhaps, that may well be the eventual order of importance of these visits. Japan was the beginning of a possible civilizational alliance. Australia changed its mind on uranium supplies to India.

Dont buy the hype Modis US visit will be all show and of little substance

PM Narendra Modi at the site of the 9/11 Memorial in the lower Manhattan borough of New York. Reuters

But the Chinese visit, as could be expected from India’s principal enemy, was notable for pomp and circumstance, but nothing of any substance, although there was plenty of atmospherics and theatrics. I am afraid Narendra Modi’s visit to the US will similarly produce nothing whatsoever of value.

There are several reasons for this. First and foremost is that the Obama administration is fundamentally hostile to India, not to mention that President Obama himself appears more or less a lame-duck embroiled in large problems abroad, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. The record shows that Obama does not take India seriously, and now that he has several crises on his hands, he is likely not to have any time at all for an India-America rapprochement. India is a long-term play, and all American presidents, and Obama in particular, are short-term thinkers.

In the long run, the US certainly needs a counterpoint to an increasingly aggressive China that’s running riot in Asia, and preparing to push the US out. India can play a useful role in containing China, along with Japan, Vietnam, Australia and Russia. But, in the short run, beset by urgent problems such as ISIS and the self-inflicted Ukraine, Obama has no bandwidth for Modi.

Second, the US is in what appears to be systemic decline. Despite continuing to be by far the biggest economy in the world, with its military power the greatest in history, both in absolute and in relative terms, it appears impotent. Its allies are also troubled: witness the almost-collapse of the UK just last week, as they escaped partition by the skin of their teeth.

Third, even if the US were still in the business of helping other countries grow, as it allegedly was in the days of the Marshall Plan, it cannot afford to create another competitor. The meteoric rise of China as a manufacturing power has hurt America’s competitive position. If we believe some of the comparative data, India is following a trajectory that mirrors China’s, only 13 years behind, and with strong leadership it may well become a new manufacturing power, and realpolitik suggests this is not in America’s best interests.

There is only one possible silver lining to this cloud: that American businesses may recognize the benefit from working with India, partly because of the demographic dividend will lead to affluent consumers of their wares in India. Partly because they should realize that more of their human resources can come from Indians as the education system there improves. And partly because the new manufacturing initiative (“Make in India”) may benefit them.

Of course, it may also happen that businessmen, as before, will demand that low-hanging fruit: that India should open itself up on terms are advantageous to them (“fair trade” in the jargon), in areas such as insurance. There will be no concomitant offers to help India in terms of its demands, for example, in the area of visas and freer access to the US market for its services. There is no point in doing this. Quid pro quo is a must.

The hostility of Democratic Party administrations in the US towards India is legendary, even though for some reason Indians are convinced that this is not so: perhaps all those pictures of John Kennedy and Jawaharlal Nehru strolling in the Rose Garden in the White House are the culprit. But it was evident even in UPA days – Obama flattered Manmohan Singh by giving him some crumbs (“the first formal dinner for a foreign head of state”) while generally treating India like something the cat dragged in. Meaningless pomp; no substance.

Obama will host a private dinner with Modi and there will be many other opportunities for discussion, but he will not get away with the usual trick of giving flowery speeches and massaging Indian egos, while studiously avoiding any real deliverables. Modi is likely to pin him down on facts, of which the lofty and airy Obama has few: his strong suit is platitudes.

There are a number of areas in which it would be helpful to build up ties, as Ashley J Tellis notes in “Kick-starting the US-Indian Strategic Partnership” from the Carnegie Endowment. He listed “cybersecurity and homeland security, defense, education, public health and human capital growth, energy and the environment, infrastructure and urban development, and civilian space and nuclear cooperation”. All mutually beneficial; so near, yet so far.

The virulent ostracism of Narendra Modi as a person was official US policy for quite a few years, although in fairness, it did begin before Obama’s time. Behind this was a motley crew of the usual suspects: Christian fundamentalists who want to have a free run in India for their conversion machines, Indian communists in the US who hate anything Hindu with a passion, and pan-national Muslim interests, especially those funded and sustained by Pakistan’s ISI.

The US Commission on Internal Religious Freedom (USCIRF), despite the name and purported objective, is apparently an official mechanism for bible-thumping fundamentalists in the US to push their agendas. Their hatred for Hindus is legendary (except for the Hindus that they manage to convert by monetary inducement and other fraud, of course). A recent tweet from the USCIRF, quoting its sepoys in India, is proof of malafide intent:

It boggles the mind that such naked hatred – not to mention an utter lie -- emanates from the US administration. In fact, it is the USICRF that is comparable to the ISIS: a bunch of fundamentalists. A tweet from David Cohen, a former US administration official and a friend of India, captures it nicely:

Let us note that Narendra Modi is the only person who was ever refused a US visa under obscure provisions related to the USCIRF. No, not Chinese doing genocide in Tibet, not Taliban or Pakistanis doing genocide in Balochistan, not even the terrorists of ISIS driving Yazidi to extinction. Only Modi got the treatment: so there is clearly motivation behind it, and almost certainly related to the Christian conversion industry.

Furthermore, there was an expose by Madhav Nalapat in The Sunday Guardian about the previous US ambassador, Nancy Powell and her role, and also Hillary Clinton’s malign role, in the hounding of Modi for several years. (Hilariously, now Powell has been appointed as Obama’s point person on Ebola: apparently Obama felt that since Powell dealt with pestilential India she’d be good with Ebola!)

There was also the stunning report by KP Nayar in The Telegraph which implies that Barak Obama believes that as someone whose father was a Muslim, it is impossible for him to be on good terms with Modi! If true, this puts paid to any possible chemistry between the two men: they will be going through the motions, much as Modi and Chinese strongman Xi did.

Modi’s erstwhile ‘untouchability’ was also the result of an unremitting campaign of calumny by Indian-origin leftists in the US, members of entities such as FOIL (Forum of Indian Leftists) and a clutch of related entities such as CAG (Coalition Against Genocide). Most of them have a single-point agenda: be anti-India, and, especially, anti-Hindu.

Indian communists are a peculiar lot. Those with long memories remember that they supported China in the 1962 war. In Bengal, they demonstrated their ability to impoverish an entire state. In the so-called Naxalite areas of that state, they set up a nihilist, Stalinist State. They have no interest in Indian development, nor in India-US rapprochement. Or even in the territorial integrity of India.

Then there are the entities waging a virtual war on India, often with funding from the ISI, as in the celebrated Faigate case, wherein a Kashmiri-American was found to be channeling Pakistani money to various turncoats and fellow-travelers.

All of these are sure to gravitate to various black-flag-waving, chanting demonstrations that will be exaggerated in the Indian media: just like Indian MSM were the only ones showing Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif’s speech live and its entirety, including its lies and exaggerations. Prime Minister Modi would be well advised to ignore all this, as it is sound and fury signifying nothing.

To counter this contrived negativity, staunch NRI supporters of Narendra Modi are organizing some unusual events – unheard of when politicians visit – such as a 20,000 person meeting (I almost said ‘show’) in Madison Square Garden, one of New York City’s big arenas. It is usually rock music shows that are held there! In many ways, this is a declaration by Indian-Americans that they believe in his leadership, and that they will be his unofficial ambassadors.

Presumably, this, as well as the stunning success of Mangalyaan, will motivate American businessmen to pay attention to India. In the past it was American businesses, eyeing the vast revenues they thought they could get from China, that lobbied for and pushed through many China-friendly policies; and if sufficiently motivated, they may do the same for India.

To a certain extent, Modi’s “Make in India” program will inherently appeal to US private sector investors in manufacturing, but only to an extent. What would appeal more to them would be, of course, the market and the supposed demographic dividend, but most of all, it would be frugal engineering and frugal innovation. The well-timed triumph of the Mangalyaan mission at a cost of a tenth of the NASA mission could well be a trigger. I do hope this gets enough airplay.

But beyond that, the personalities, preoccupations and politics of the current US administration militate against a strategic convergence of views of the type that seemed possible a decade ago. We will have to wait until Obama leaves in 2016; if Hillary Clinton is the next US President, a grand India-US partnership cannot happen until the next Republican is in power. Till then, we will remain “Estranged Democracies” as the book by Dennis Kux put it.

The fact of the matter is that the Indian national interest would be well-served by playing the US and China off against each other; or ever better, by projecting India as a new and upcoming pole in a G3, or a tripolar world. This, naturally, is not something Americans would be keen on. Thus, the fundamental divergence of interests will ensure that, even with the best of intentions, little of value will emerge from this visit. Modi with his stirring oratory will be a nice counterpoint to the aloof and distant Obama. That dichotomy may well epitomize Narendra Modi’s maiden, and triumphant, US trip as Prime Minister.

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