Narendra Modi in Washington: From lukewarm build-up to distracted host, what is the point of this visit?

Why exactly is Prime Minister Narendra Modi going to Washington? Has anybody actually thought about it? With US president Donald Trump politically painted in a corner, a special counsel looking into Russia's involvement with his campaign, and former FBI director James Comey deposing between the Senate Intelligence Committee on the issue, why is Modi visiting Washington DC now?

Trump and Comey are locked in their own version of "liar, liar, pants on fire", and the US public is beginning to believe the latter is lesser of a liar than the boss who fired him. But it's hardly the right atmosphere for the Americans to play host.

There are just four days before Modi lands in Washington, but the lukewarm build-up is more akin to an unwelcome visitor on a Sunday afternoon, or a call-up from the dentist.

 Narendra Modi in Washington: From lukewarm build-up to distracted host, what is the point of this visit?

The trip has lacked the fanfare and hype of Narendra Modi's previous visits to Washington. AP

Seeing as how they will be meeting again in Hamburg less than two weeks later (7-8 July), and even the agenda is dreary and speaks in generalised terms, this visit to a harried incumbent in the White House seems like an indulgence.

Even India's external affairs ministry is at pains to elaborate on the "trade, terror and student visa" trinity that will inevitably cover the entire raison d’etre for a most redundant trip.

Given the hiding we got from Trump unilaterally over the Paris Accord and his relatively toxic attack on India getting billions and billions to be in the climate control pact, it begs the question — why this trip?

Now that the special prosecutor has also extended his brief to include a probe into the business dealings of Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, also senior White House advisor, things are increasingly murky, and it's truly difficult to find a decent enough peg to hang this trip on, or to even expect Trump's attention to be riveted on the representative of a country he hasn't been cordial towards following an initial display of warmth.

Modi has himself been on the wane these past few weeks, more spoken about than seen, and he may want to validate his presence with a high-profile foreign visit, with all the gush and surge of publicity that comes with it. This also includes the photo ops and the opportunities to dress up and be seen in that benign "lord of the manor" persona he had perfected in the first months of his command. Good TV time, lots of pointless analyses, a sense of global power — it is a nice high to cavalcade Pennsylvania Avenue.

The very fact that there is no Indian diaspora, no rah rah stadium full of fans cheering lustily during the visit stays perplexing in that it is being marketed as a "working visit", whatever that means.

New Delhi hasn't really shown its displeasure over Trump's attitude to India or the pullback he has ordered from outsourcing and other cheap labour options. He's been anti-climate and anti-immigration, but not anti-Pakistan or even ready to do much about changing the equation in the sub-continent. Ergo, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Bloomberg writes rather dreamily that Modi should discuss China, terrorism, Afghanistan, and the status of Indians in the US. All of this is old hat, and with Trump waiting for a knock on the door from the prosecutor, one cannot even see what sparks these issues are going to ignite.

Yes, they are meeting for the first time, and that might generate "love at first sight" or it might start a turf war, since two big egos clash, but the only interesting insight Bloomberg gave is to indicate that India and US might be taking the first step on the hopscotch to a "strategic partnership", one that would be comprehensive and send out a message to the world that the two largest democracies are on the same page.

If that "hidden" agenda is for real, maybe this trip justifies it and it will reflect in Hamburg two weeks down the road. But it is tough to enthuse over a visit that seems more like a cul-de-sac than a road to a new era.

Updated Date: Jun 22, 2017 14:07:45 IST