Narendra Modi’s most telling bilateral meet during his visit to the United States, beyond that with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, was with Hillary Clinton, who is likely to occupy the Oval Office in January 2017. Till then, both countries must build on the positives from the PM’s visit
Lhakpa Tenzing, the Nepali sherpa, owns the distinction of a record number of ascents of Mt Everest, at 21. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not be a mountaineer, despite his youthful wanderings in the Himalayas, but, at the present pace, he may just out-summit Tenzing.
However, as evidenced by his adventures in America, Modi may have a steeper climb. The prime minister and United States President Barack Obama exchanged plenty of grins, but there’s an underlying chagrin. India’s stand on the WTO irks the Americans, while Washington’s projected Afghanistan withdrawal and immigration barriers won’t work for New Delhi.
There were certainly plenty of positives from Modi’s US visit. He got to know Obama over hot water and warm words, all of which will help thaw the chill that’s developed between the two nations. Of course, the trip also allowed television channels to unleash their pun-dits: From Namoste America to Modison Square Garden, they name checked the prime minister without a modicum of modisty. But let’s not forget that Obama enjoyed a fine rapport with Manmohan Singh as well, hosting the first State Dinner of his tenure for the former prime minister.
It may, thus, be smart to look beyond the hyperbole. One example was the tour that Modi took of the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington. One anchor was amazed at how the “unplanned” nature of Obama escorting the PM underscored the good vibrations of the trip. Except, the White House had hours earlier added that to the daily guidance for the president’s schedule.
It’s perhaps significant that even during their joint statement at the White House, Modi scattered thanks for the “warm welcome” and “hospitality” shown by Obama and the American people, but chose to qualify the Indian-American community with an “especially”. That was scarcely surprising since that community has supported Modi during his years in visa wilderness. The event at Madison Square Garden was probably the highlight of the visit. MSG did, in this case too, enhance the flavour.
However, while Modi may have offered plenty of sops to those desis, their principal problems can only be resolved in Washington. There’s the totalisation agreement, which hasn’t yet been agreed to by the US, even as Indians on temporary visas pay over $1 billion each year into US social security without benefiting from that mandatory deduction, on their return to India. Protectionist measures championed by Democratic politicians, like New York senator Chuck Schumer who appeared onstage at MSG, have targeted Indian IT companies utilising H1 and L visas. And for green card holders, the path to citizenship remains rocky, as reforms are held hostage to the Obama administration’s focus on illegal immigrants.
The MSG shindig may have attracted a snarkfest, but the oft-parodied NRIs form a critical bridge between the nations, as the visit of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to India shows. And it’s not just BJP-centric. Indian-American groups used their fortunes to lobby for the passage of the India-US civil nuclear agreement that was signed between former PM Singh and former US President George W Bush.
But there’s cause for optimism. Perhaps Modi’s most telling bilateral meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, beyond that with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, was with Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton. Barring another insurgent campaign as in 2008, the former secretary of state should be occupying the Oval Office in January 2017, the half way mark of Modi’s government. Her ties with India and Indian Americans were lampooned in a 2007 mailer from the Obama campaign that labelled her D-Punjab, where D stood for Democrat. Whatever their faults, the Clintons remain Indophiles.
Until then, maintaining the momentum afforded by Modi’s visit will depend on officials on either side. It’s hardly surprising that officials who lead such efforts are often described as sherpas, for it is they who do the heavy lifting, making an arduous climb that much easier for their leaders. India and the US may not be on peaking terms just yet, but they could get there.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal