The long-awaited visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US has begun. Would the visit reignite the chemistry between the two nations? Or, will it be a well-intentioned but meaningless ensemble of resolutions similar to the outcomes of former PM Manmohan Singh’s several trips to the US?
Modi left for the US after his clarion call to business leaders for making India the manufacturing base for their products. His plan: Create employment and generate purchasing power to meet the rising unsatiated demand and create a virtuous circle around the proposition that growth must benefit all stakeholders.
In The Ballad of East and West, Rudyard Kipling wrote: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”. Modi is now attempting to unravel this conundrum. He has redefined the ‘Look-East Policy’ to ‘Link-West’ and this new ‘East-West compact’ could be a game changer.
In recent times, the West means the US and its Silicon Valley has shrunk the world in unimaginable ways. Indians are a major player in this technology hub.
However, in our quest to see a closer India-US partnership, many of us overlook the dissimilarities between the two. Post Independence, India was replete with political leaders steeped in Fabian Socialism and compulsions of that time induced us to adopt a planned model of development.
However, the model has failed to live up to the new challenges and opportunities.
Despite being one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (1961), India developed a closer relationship with the erstwhile Soviet Union during the Cold War period. India’s close strategic and military relations with Moscow affected our relations with the West, including the US.
Despite the 1954 Public Law-480 (PL-480), which allowed the sale of surplus American wheat to India, the Indo-US relations have never been an unifying force in the Indian political milieu. Cutting across political lines, parliamentarians and legislators viewed closer relations with the US with suspicion.
The mindset in the US mirrored the suspicion of the Indian politicians: It fostered a closer relation with Pakistan and strengthened its economic ties with China.
The 1991 economic crisis forced a review of India’s economic and foreign policy. While economic issues continued to dominate the five-year period of Narasimha Rao, a change happened under the NDA.
Prime Minister AB Vajpayee invested a great deal of political capital in improving relations with the US. The Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott discussions built the strategic partnership framework between the two nations. Unlike the Congress, the BJP has always been more comfortable with the US.
The UPA did try to take the strategic partnership to the next level but even its high point — the nuclear deal — served little purpose. The extended civil liability and interpretation of Clauses 17 (b) and (c) of the Act remains opaque.
It is extraordinary that we converted a decisive advantage into a liability. So it is not a coincidence that Modi as a BJP PM is seeking to reignite this lost chemistry, a result of faltering economic growth, the growing frustration of investors, the strengthening of the anti-Indian lobby in Washington and the altered priorities of the Obama administration.
So what would the markers of this new chemistry be? How would the East-West compact evolve? First, human chemistry is all about trust and Modi has a great reputation when it comes to re-igniting personal trust. He did this recently with Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping, and the leaders of Bhutan and Nepal. Second, the 21st century is said to be an Asian century. Modi’s message about India’s 3Ds — demography, demand and democracy — make it an attractive investment opportunity.
The interdependence of a rising Asia and a resurgent US represents the virtuous East-west compact. Third, the US continues to be a source of private investment and enhanced cooperation in education, skills and technology can alter the value of our demographic profile. There is also a compelling logic behind a more rational and appropriate visa regime.
Fourth, the growing defence cooperation between the two needs fostering. The government has enhanced the FDI limit in the defence sector to 49% in its pursuit to promote defence manufacturing. The US defence industry has welcomed the decision that now allows it to tap India’s $16-billion annual defence procurement industry. For India, this could mean the creation of millions of new jobs.
Finally, India and the US have not shared the best of relations in multilateral forums like the G20 and World Trade Organization and on subjects such as climate change, nuclear-non-proliferation, application of patent laws, the expansion of the Security Council, global counter-terrorism strategy and trade facilitation.
The suspicion and growing mistrust have created a wedge between the two in recent years. The US will look at Modi to resolve these challenges quickly.
Politics rides on favourable economic opportunities. The ‘Make in India’ campaign seeks to enlarge these opportunities by significantly improving the ease of doing business and competitiveness of the Indian economy. Any resolve to put irritants in India-US ties needs trust and sustained implementation. There is no one better than Modi to achieve this. The East-West compact is a win-win proposition for all.
NK Singh is a Rajya Sabha member and a former revenue secretary
The views expressed by the author are personal