Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not mince his words when it comes to India’s interests, irrespective of the clout and weight of the challenger. During the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in January 2015, visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry insisted on carrying a message from him to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad, his next stop from Gandhinagar, in order to improve ties between what Americans call nuclear neighbours. An irritated Modi cut down the honest broker by saying: “Aap hamme apne nasib par chhod dijiye, hum ek doosre ko sambhal lenge (Please leave India and Pakistan to their fate. We can handle each other).
Cut to the launch of a “Make in India” event in Mumbai this February. Modi gave an earful to the US-India Business Council chairman about President Barack Obama plans to supply F-16 fighters to Pakistan under the garb of counter-terrorism aid. When Modi addresses the joint session of US Congress on June 8, the lawmakers will see a PM who does not need the crutches of non-alignment, one who is all for a broad spectrum engagement with the American people but is equally upfront on irritants facing the bilateral relationship. For the PM has a notion of India and the US as partners rather than allies, working independently to serve the same global objectives. Even on Afghanistan-Pakistan, there is no difference between India and the US over the diagnosis of the problem and long-term interests, only the prescription is different with the gap hinging on tactical play.
While the India-US relationship is not at the cost of time-tested ties with Russia, Modi understands the significance of US House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan’s invite in the last year of President Obama’s reign and recognises the global pre-eminence of US companies in the techno-economic, digital and innovative spheres for next two decades. It is interesting to note that PM Atal Behari Vajpayee got to address the US Congress in September 2000, the last year of the Clinton presidency, and managed to end India’s nuclear isolation post-Pokhran II tests. PM Manmohan Singh addressed the US Senators and Congressmen in July 2005 and signed the India-US civilian nuclear agreement, paving the way for clean energy for his people.
While many a think-tank will say Modi is going to the US to get entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and other multilateral regimes, Indian ambitions now stretch far beyond in its relationship with Washington. With China getting aggressive in the Indo-Pacific region, geopolitics dictates India’s close engagement with the US as New Delhi, unlike Beijing, has historically not questioned the presence of Western powers in either the Indian Ocean or Pacific. India knows that it is important to check China’s expanding maritime power in the Pacific for the balance of power in one would affect the balance of power in the Indian Ocean as both are linked. And to maintain this strategic equilibrium, India needs the might, long reach and capability of the US Navy.
The role of the US in overall security and stability in Asia-Pacific, particularly in the Af-Pak region and the South China Sea, cannot be ignored. In a changing strategic environment, India needs US technological help in building its own defence precision capability to ward off any China-Pak joint adventure on the land borders. With no less than 3.2 million Indian expats shaping the bilateral engagement on shared democratic values and innovation, PM Modi will get an opportunity to underscore the importance of the information technology industry in bringing the two countries, separated by time zones, together notwithstanding the mimicry of the Indian accent by Republican presidential candidates.
Moving beyond the White House and State Department, PM Modi will sell the Indian story in times of global economic gloom before the US lawmakers and people at large and convince both on the win-win partnership between the two countries. The joint address comes at a critical time when the US has started to look inwards with both Obama and Republican frontrunner Donald Trump talking about sharing the global burden and the polity showing radical signs and an unpredictable November result. In the US system, a joint address or public speaking in the last year gives an opportunity for a visiting leader to reach out to the masses including industry, think-tanks, lobbyists and the presidential campaigns.
This people to people contact is unique to democratic countries as PM Modi only needs to engage President Vladimir Putin in Russia and President Xi Jinping in China to boost bilateral ties. While pushing for bilateral engagement, PM Modi would like to articulate India’s security concerns in the neighbourhood by insisting that US forces remain in Afghanistan for the stability of South and Central Asia as well as the need to globally contain the rise of the Islamic State and India-specific terrorist groups based in Pakistan. He needs to convey that the China-Pakistan economic corridor through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is unacceptable as it violates Indian sovereignty and the strategic challenge posed by all-weather friends to New Delhi. While India-US trade issues are highlighted by American law makers and industrial lobbies, these concerns are often amplified and largely resolvable. PM Modi should not only use the joint address to say good-bye to his new-found friend Obama but also to reach out to the key players in the next regime from both parties so that the relationship does not go into auto-mode during the transition period of nearly eight months.
This is important as a close relationship is linked to more jobs on both sides in the innovation and IT industry as well as the role of American companies in PM Modi’s “Make in India” campaign. Through his speech, he needs to make Congressmen believe that the India-US global engagement for the future and that they were wrong in denying him an American visa for a decade.