Journalist | Writer | Analyst
26 September 2014
If proof were needed that Narendra Modi is traveling to Washington DC for a meeting with Barack Obama without a clear agenda of his own, one need look no further than the op-ed article he signed in today’s Wall Street Journal.
The Prime Minister’s piece was justifiably upbeat about his government’s economic agenda and the pitch he made was essentially aimed at American business and investors. What he failed to do, however, was to spell out a vision for where India would like to move its relationship with the United States over the next five years.
The boilerplate language used – “natural global partners”, “shared values”, “complementary strengths” — could easily apply to many countries with which India has close ties. But the U.S. is not just any other country and India ought to be clear about what it wants out of its partnership.
Nine years after twin defence and nuclear agreements set a new bilateral course, the strategic partnership between New Delhi and Washington appears rudderless. Worse, the Obama administration, which continues to take a transactional approach to the relationship, blames India for the fact that major nuclear deals have yet to fructify and that defence cooperation has not shaped up the way the Pentagon and U.S. arms manufacturers expected.
The U.S. complains about India’s nuclear liability law, its patent law, and its policies on food subsidies and foreign investment in key sectors like retail and defence. Above all, Washington is consumed with the feeling that India has not been grateful enough for all that has been done for it. And that it is too darn independent.
The Prime Minister ought to have used his op-ed article to directly allay American misconceptions about India’s policy on patents, nuclear liability, defence cooperation, and the world trading system so that the US President doesn’t waste time raising the same questions when they meet in the White House next week.
In any case, it is not as if the U.S. has been particularly receptive to India’s dhobi-list of demands. Easier work visas for the legions of Indian nationals who need to travel to the U.S. as part of India’s business process exports is one issue, as is the absence of a ‘totalisation agreement’ that will allow for the repatriation of billions of dollar worth of social security deductions made while Indian nationals are temporarily working in the U.S.
Other perennial Indian demands -membership of the UN Security Council and of international non-proliferation regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group – are not for Washington to unilaterally decide upon and require a spirited diplomatic outreach by New Delhi itself if ever they are to be met.
Narendra Modi has shown some flashes of smart agenda-building, when, for example, as a prime ministerial candidate, he spoke of the need for India to sponsor a global summit on solar energy, or when he invited South Asian leaders to his swearing-in. But as PM, there is a danger of him being trapped by routine. To be fair, he has been subject to a punishing diplomatic schedule that forms part of the regular prime ministerial calendar – the BRICS summit, meetings with his Japanese and Australian counterparts, the obligatory visit to Bhutan. And the Obama meeting was more the product of Washington trying to mend fences over the visa issue than of any pro-activeness on India’s part. Yet, diplomatic encounters abhor a vacuum. If Modi walks into the White House without a strategic agenda of his own, he will find Obama waiting to thrust one on to him.
America’s top strategic priority will be to get India to back the U.S. in its Sino-centric ‘pivot to Asia’, including closer trilateral (and quadrilateral) coordination between Washington, Tokyo, New Delhi (and Canberra). Also up there: Indian backing for the Western campaign against the terrorists of the ‘Islamic State’ that is centred almost exclusively around the use of force (and which gives a free pass to regional powers which continue to promote the Salafist ideology and/or finance armed its adherents in countries like Syria).
Both American agenda items have a superficial appeal for India but require careful evaluation, as they are not without collateral risks and consequences. Indeed, this is where the absence of empowered foreign policy advisors with strategic vision might end up costing Modi, and India, dear.
For all his other skills, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval will take time to adjust to the world of high-stakes diplomacy, assuming the Prime Minister expects him to play the kind of role Brajesh Mishra, J.N. Dixit, Shivshankar Menon and even M.K. Narayanan played for their principals. Ordinarily, the Ministry of External Affairs might have stepped into the breach – after all, the MEA was the primary resource Prime Ministers drew upon in the pre-NSA days – but that would mean empowering Sushma Swaraj and her team, something Modi is reluctant to do.