Soon after Narendra Modi assumed charge as Prime Minister of India, informal discussions took place about a possible visit to Ottawa. These were feelers; it was going to be a touch and go decision, a welcoming hand hadn’t been outstretched.
Apparently, Modi personally wanted to make the Canadian journey. It was an emotional inclination. After all, after Japan in 2009, Canada was the second country, and the first from the West, to partner for the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in 2011. Also, while he was still ostensibly ostracised in the United States and Europe, Canada could have proved his passport to the West. When a trade delegation visiting Gujarat invited Modi to their country, it was done in the presence of a beaming Canadian Cabinet minister. That Modi didn’t at the time was due to the reluctance to further underscore the fact that he wouldn’t have been able to cross the border at the Niagara Falls, if he so desired. Plenty of water has certainly flowed since those days, and in three weeks, Modi will be touching down at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport, en route to the United Nations and the White House. His itinerary, ironically, won’t include Canada.
The reason is fairly simple: Emotions aside, officials have sought to schedule a visit when tangible deliverables are on the table, like much-postponed foreign trade and economic partnership agreements. Otherwise, there are just so many photo-ops of feeding fish that can co-opt optics to highlight a visit without returns. Pragmatism dictates that he angles for a larger catch.
So, backing off from the baggage of emotions, Modi will make his way to Washington via New York. Perhaps, there will be a breakthrough in the dormant bilateral investment treaty or, the distant possibility of coming to terms on nuclear liability compensation. The Americans, meanwhile, will be hoping for a deluge of defence deals, part of the reason for their recent charm offensive. The Modi-Obama equation will likely be one of cold numbers. Unlike the state dinner hosted by the American president for then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009, his successor may have to settle for one at Foggy Bottom, the State Department headquarters, with Barack Obama possibly ‘dropping by’. Exigencies of the political season in the US, with mid-term elections scheduled for November have already deducted a potential address to a joint meeting of the US Congress from his American endeavour. If Modi seeks true warmth, he’ll find it at New York’s Madison Square Garden, at the Indian community event, at which the organisers are likely to lay out the saffron carpet.
That event will be fraught with symbolism. After all, once denied a visa for a visit in 2005, his supporters gathered at the very venue, and while Modi couldn’t be there in person, he was there via video link, a practice he continued over succeeding years for interacting with his NRI backers.
This, of course, is Modi’s time for globetrotting. And when he’s not earning frequent flyer points, the world is coming home to him, as with the expected arrival of the Chinese president.
But even as Modi does diplomacy with Obama and the Chinese, he’s obviously at greater ease working with those attuned to his centre-right vision, as with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Australian PM Tony Abbott. This is a coalition of the likeminded; a work in progress. There are plenty of areas where they can achieve fusion, nuclear or otherwise.
There’s been plenty of drum-beating about Modi’s visit to Japan, but even that had been postponed as officials worked to make it resonate. Officials are just as optimistic that a future engagement with Canadian PM Stephen Harper, a Conservative, will be marked with a similar can-do camaraderie.
While the Modi government’s equations with Pakistan is heading south, relations with the country that describes itself as the True North can only head in that direction.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed by the author are personal