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State of India-US relations in the wake of Narendra Modi's sixth visit: So far, so good... but what next?

  • That Modi's sixth US tour since 2014 wasn't a State visit was made clear by the itinerary that indicated he was in the US to primarily speak at the United Nations

  • Accordingly, a joint statement between the prime minister and President Trump was unlikely to be issued

  • But it was expected that the prime minister would return home with some sort of a deal, agreement or understanding on paper

Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned triumphantly to India on Saturday after what was, by a large percentage of accounts, a hugely successful visit to the US.

The prime minister — flanked by President Donald Trump, politicians from both sides of the American political aisle and all manner of captains of industry — held forth on a variety of topics in Houston at the 'Howdy, Modi!' event. Over the course of his latest outreach-to-diaspora event, Modi extolled the virtues of Indian democracy, talked up India's heritage and identity, and called for a 'decisive fight against terrorism' and those who support it. Along the way, he touched upon the oil-data analogy, rural sanitation and the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir.

Immediately after came a jaunt to New York that kicked off with Modi being conferred the 'Global Goalkeeper Award' by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in recognition of the government's Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. Next up were a series of speaking engagements at the UN (Climate Action Summit and an address on Universal Health Care), at the ECOSOC Chambers on the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi today and the Bloomberg Global Business Forum (where he delivered a keynote address). Finally, Modi spoke eloquently at the UN General Assembly, laying out the story of the tapestry that is India, sprinkled with references to history, culture, poetry, a commitment to peacekeeping missions and his own government's initiatives.

Somewhere in between was the eagerly anticipated meeting between the leaders of the oldest and the largest modern democracies. It is this aspect of Modi's US visit that will be examined closer in the following paragraphs.

Football tactics and new mobile phones

If that subhead threw you off, it's worth clarifying that this isn't an editorial SNAFU and you are still reading the same article. That said, it's worth going over a couple of case studies before venturing onward:

Case study 1: The football tactic mentioned in said subhead is less of a tactic than an unwanted byproduct of 'possession-based football' — a strategy wherein a team seeks to hang on to the ball for as long as possible in order to wear down the opposing team and force a mistake. That byproduct is known as 'stale possession', which sees midfielders passing the ball from side to side and among each other, rather than driving forward into enemy territory or retreating to a zone of defensive safety. It is called stale possession because that is exactly what it is: Stale. The ball is passed from side to side, bereft of any vision or will that culminates in it nestling in the back of the goal. The only purpose served is to keep the ball in relative safety while the clock ticks on. Elsewhere, this concept is referred to as MAFA (not to be confused with MAGA) or Mistaking Activity For Achievement.

Case study 2: Onto mobile phones and in today's world, it is highly unusual to see a week go by without the launch of a new device — regardless of whether it happens to be a small upgrade with the letter A or X or S tacked on to its name or a veritable game-changer. While most of the time, new mobile phones tend to sport minor upgrades on their previous iterations, there are a handful that arrive on the market with the burden of massive expectation — as their price tags would merit. Often, those expectations are largely fulfilled. But then there are other instances, where style is placed firmly over substance and the absence of innovation is masked by flashy bells and whistles.

 State of India-US relations in the wake of Narendra Modis sixth visit: So far, so good... but what next?

Narendra Modi and Donald Trump at the 'Howdy, Modi!' event in Houston, Texas. Getty Images

Modi meets Trump

That Modi's sixth US tour since 2014 wasn't a State visit was made clear by the itinerary that indicated he was in the US to primarily speak at the United Nations on a number of topics. Accordingly, a joint statement between the prime minister and Trump was unlikely to be issued. However, and despite the somewhat over-the-top hoopla over Modi's latest tryst with the United States, it wasn't an extraordinary demand to expect him to return home with some sort of deal, agreement or understanding on paper.

While keeping expectations in the realm of reality, there were two areas in particular on which the prime minister was expected to arrive at some understanding with the president: Trade and Kashmir.

On trade, a topic Foreign Secretary Vikram Gokhale noted, had been discussed almost as much as terrorism, there appears to have been zero movement. There is reason to believe that major sticking points persist in the India-US trade relationship, particularly if the US' readout of the Modi-Trump meeting is anything to go by: "The president reaffirmed the importance of greatly increasing trade between the United States and India, and highlighted the need for resolving barriers to free, fair, and reciprocal trade, which includes improving United States companies' market access in India" (emphasis added).

As it stands, the two countries are embroiled in a series of disagreements at the WTO and as this article points out, "Since 2017, the US has not held its annual dialogue on trade – US-India Trade Policy Forum – with India." Despite growing economic tensions with China, it appears improving trade ties with India isn't on the immediate agenda for the US, and a lot more wrangling and haggling is on the cards.

When it comes to Kashmir, Trump has vacillated a great deal on where he — ergo, his nation — stands over the nearly two months since Article 370 was abrogated by the Indian Parliament. Through it all, his dream of mediating on the decades-old bilateral (in case, it needs reiteration) issue between India and Pakistan has remained intact. It has persisted through his outlandish claim in Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan's midst in July that Modi asked him to mediate between the South Asian neighbours all the way to his remarks after meeting Khan last week that "I am ready, willing and able. It's a complex issue. It's been going on for a long time. But if both want it [mediation], I will be ready to do it". However, in August, after meeting Modi on the sidelines of the G-7 Summit, the president had stated, "[T]he prime minister really feels he has it (the situation) under control. They speak with Pakistan and I'm sure that they will be able to do something that will be very good... I think they can do it (resolve the issue) themselves."

That Trump refuses to commit to a position is indicative of Trump's ambition to mediate by stealth — albeit very poorly and characterised by the singing of a different tune depending on the company he's keeping that day — and extremely unrealistically hope of making 'resolving Kashmir' his legacy. Even the US' readout of the Modi-Trump meeting mentioned that "the president encouraged Modi to improve relations with Pakistan and fulfil his promise to better the lives of the Kashmiri people". Being associated with 'resolving Kashmir', it would seem, is more important to Trump than the actual resolution of the issue by the two parties whom the matter affects.

Could it be that the prime minister's oratorical abilities hit the one obstacle — selling Trump India's viewpoint — it was hoped they would clear? Time will tell.

Where India-US relations are today

As it stands, relations between the two countries have been on an upward tick for the best part of two decades and the bilateral has been steadily deepening and widening — evident in the host of agreements and deals being ironed out, particularly in the realm of defence and counter-terrorism cooperation. However, there is a threat of India-US ties falling prey to the aforementioned concept of 'stale possession' or MAFA in certain other key areas, which will see both sides kicking the metaphorical ball among each other without any clearly defined path towards the goal. Certainly, diplomacy must be given time to take effect and cannot be expected to reap dividends overnight, but the near-freeze on forward movement as far as trade is concerned is worrisome.

In summation, Modi's US visit certainly was an optically-rich and flashy mega-event. However, while Trump got Modi's ringing endorsement for next year's Presidential Election and managed to keep himself in the news vis-à-vis Kashmir, the prime minister appears to have returned home almost empty-handed (save for the Global Goalkeeper Award). It's a lot like that snazzy looking mobile phone that launched to much fanfare but offered next to nothing in terms of new innovations or tech.

It's possible that the prime minister and key ministers are biding their time until 2020 — at which point, they'll know who they will have to deal with for the next four years. But for now, it seems that while the relationship isn't in decline, it's staring a plateau in the face.

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Updated Date: Sep 30, 2019 17:48:40 IST