Modi In America The Hype And Substance
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s just concluded visit to the United States may be considered unique in more senses than one. As my friend Sunil Adam, the New York-based journalist, has observed aptly, here was a visit whose official component turned out to be just incidental, the most substantial part consuming the social parleys. To quote Sunil, “No one should be surprised if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the White House will be seen as a side show of his triumphant return to the United States. His visit to New York was such a superbly scripted and choreographed triumph that it is unlikely to be topped in what appears to be a very distracted Washington.” Modi was probably the first foreign leader to be given the largest-ever community reception in the heart of New York City—around 20,000-odd Indian-Americans cheering him at the Madison Square Garden, the iconic venue better known for celebrity rock stars and singers performing on its grand stage. This was also the first time, when an Indian leader’s speech was beamed live on giant screens at Time Square, the pulsating heart of Manhattan in New York, arguably the financial nerve centre of the world.
Modi’s critics, of course are not amused. They say it was all well planned by those Indian-Americans and non-resident Indians who hailed mostly from Gujarat. For them what mattered more were that a New York Court summoned a warrant against Modi during the visit for his “communal misdeeds” as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 and that a crowd of liberals, leftists, Muslims and Sikhs waved placards and carried posters denouncing Modi as a communalist. But these critics are simply wrong. I have hundreds of close friends and relatives living in the United States. They are not Gujaratis; but 99 per cent of them happen to be diehard Modi supporters. In fact, an overwhelming majority of about 3.2 million people of Indian origin in America think that Modi is the best person to have become India’s chief political executive. This craze for Modi in America is not a new development; he has been the most popular Indian leader for the Indian-Americans for years because of his perceived image as a decisive politician and doer, notwithstanding the denial of American visa to him on the basis of spurious complaints by a motely group of so-called liberals and secularists for whom India-bashing is the main hobby. In that sense, it will not be wrong to say that America is the “second home” to Modi.
Unlike any of his predecessor Prime Minister, Modi has got a huge advantage in taking India’s relationship with the United States to a higher level. And that is mainly because of his immense popularity among the Indian Americans. I have argued elsewhere that though Indo-US relations overall have seen more downs than ups, downs will not descend to a level of horrific low that marked the ties in between 1960s and early 1990s. And that, in turn, is due to the ascendance of the Indian- Americans both in number and profile in the United States. Indian- Americans have been continuously outpacing every ethnic group socioeconomically to reach the summit of the U.S. Census charts. They have attained the highest educational levels of all ethnic groups in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, 71 per cent of all Indians have a bachelor’s or high degree (compared to 28 per cent nationally and 44 per cent average for all Asian American groups). Almost 40 per cent of all Indians in the United States have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree. After all, the best and brightest students in India emigrate to America. A recent study from Pew Research Centre has shown that 80 per cent of Indians were holding college or advanced degrees, surpassing the previously Taiwanese average figure of 74.1 per cent. In fact, the percentage of the number of Indian- Americans who have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree is five times the national average in America. What all this means is that these high profiled Indian-Americans, having best professional jobs constitute a huge constituency for India which no American government or business can ignore. And if this constituency happens to be in love with Modi, then President Obama will find it hard to overlook India.
India and the United States have everything to gain as close partners, if not allies, given their shared ideals of democracy, pluralistic ways of life, equality and justice. If India is the largest democracy, then the America is the most powerful and arguably the oldest. And yet if they have been estranged, it is also because of their democratic systems. Ironical it may sound, but the fact remains that both being democracies mean that there are institutional bottlenecks, resulting in complex and slow decision-making systems. Let me explain this point. That sky is the limit for the two countries’ partnership is always mentioned whenever the leaders of the two countries meet. They make promising announcements and often conclude high-sounding agreements. But the problems arise when the stage of implementations of the agreed ideas arise.
Just see the joint statement issued at the end of Modi’s visit. Most of the sentiments and ideas inherent in this joint statement were no different from the ones mentioned in the joint statement following then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to India in 2009. That time, the two governments outlined a Strategic Dialogue that would focus on five principal pillars: strategic cooperation; energy and climate change; education and development; economics, trade and agriculture; science and technology, health and innovation. It was said that through a coherent structure of bilateral working groups, the two governments would l address a wide range of issues with the goal of producing concrete results. But where are we now after five years?
Similarly, take the case of much talked about Indo-US nuclear deal that recognised India as a nuclear power, a unique distinction without signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Americans have a legitimate grievance that India was ungrateful not to follow up the matter. Indo-US nuclear trade has not has moved on. And that is precisely because of the factor of Indian democracy, with the BJP, then the main opposition, playing the spoiler role when in order to implement the Indo-US nuclear agreement, the Manmohan Singh government passed a “Nuclear Liability Act” in 2010. Its provisions, virtually dictated by the BJP and the Left, are so onerous and inconsistent with international norms that even Indian companies, let alone international nuclear suppliers, are greatly worried. The same democratic hurdles are there in the United States also when the matters of visa to the skilled Indians for jobs in America, environment and terrorism arise much to the disappointments of the Indian government. Likewise, America may be extremely keen to sell defence items to India and there are huge potentials on this score. However, the potentials are not realised because if Indians are not happy over American reluctance to share the high technology, the Americans are disappointed that Indian conditions for foreign investment in its defence market are too complex and taxing. Even otherwise, the Manmohan Singh government’s slow economic reforms never generated any enthusiasm among the American businessmen.
The point that one is making is that agreements on paper do not mean anything unless these are implemented on the ground. In my considered view, this has been the main problem behind the non-realisation of the huge potentials in Indo-US relations. And here comes the importance of Modi. Ideas, after all, are implemented when these are nurtured by strong leaders. Modi is certainly one of them. Obama cannot find a better partner than Modi, be it in providing opportunities for U.S. trade and investment or in maintaining a stable balance of power in the Asia Pacific or in co-ordinating on strategies to counter terrorist movements. Viewed thus, Modi’s America-visit should not be seen in terms of the agreements that were signed between the two countries but as an event that created a positive atmosphere for the two moves forward.
By Prakash Nanda