Will faltering Indo-US ties fall further if Modi becomes PM?

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 02, 2014 22:21 IST

The wall writing may have been abolished, but the writing on the wall is pretty clear: According to the raft of polls that have populated Indian air waves over the recent weeks, we will witness yet another iteration of an NDA government later this month. Unless, of course, this election cycle is completed with the recognition of the phenomenon of pseudo-psephology.

If these opinion polls are not fiction, there is the very real prospect of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi taking occupation of 7 Race Course Road. That will raise another fascinating prospect — that of the nature of India’s bilateral relationship with the United States. Will the faltering relationship fall further?

Modi’s visa issues vis-à-vis the United States are well documented. If he does become India’s prime minister, simple diplomatic logic will dictate that the situation becomes history. However, a bilateral venture into America will also be contingent upon a formal invitation from Washington. After all, the elected prime minister of India, can hardly suddenly show up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, ring the bell and shout, “Trick or treat!”, thereby scaring the daylights out of its occupant.

Will the Obama administration actually extend that overture? The State Department under Hillary Clinton had been inimical towards Modi, and those circumstances may not have changed under her successor John Kerry. It’s unlikely, therefore, that an embossed invite, with a required RSVP, will be landing anytime soon in Modi’s inbox. That, however, will not prevent him from making his presence felt on American soil.

If he does become the PM, come September, expect him to take Manhattan, arriving there to address the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Leaders of countries do not need the US’ permission to camp in New York at summit time.

In fact, those that intensely dislike the US administration make it a point to make their point from the UN rostrum. In 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez stood on the podium and raised hell, as he said, “Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulphur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of.” His reference was to then American President George W Bush. A year later, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived for the UNGA, and then famously declared to a gathering of students at New York’s Columbia University that there were no gays in his country. It’s possibly this cavalcade of dictators, tinpot and otherwise, often sans their tinfoil hats, that sets off a fusillade of protests at that time of the year in New York, and not just from residents exasperated by the barricades at major streets in Midtown Manhattan.

India isn’t quite Iran or Venezuela in the American ambit, but Modi’s march to Manhattan may have several embarrassing consequences for American President Barack Obama. For instance, could there be the customary bilateral meeting often held on the sidelines of the UNGA? Even as Obama’s popularity in the Muslim sphere is slightly lower than the support he enjoys among members of the Tea Party conservatives, shaking hands with the Indian head of government could lead to a lot of hand wringing and head shaking, leading to a lot of headaches.

While American industry is likely to encourage Washington to temper the tantrums thrown at the Gujarat leader if he becomes PM, the usually vacillating Obama will have a firm deadline of September to decide how to deal with a Modi government, leaving the US president precious little time to evolve on the issue. Or will the faltering relationship fall apart?

While Obama may have had Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over for his first State Dinner, in the case of the putative PM, he may find his plate full. There will be at least one Washington resident who will be hoping that Indian pollsters have made a meal of their predictions, bringing as much science to bear upon their number crunching as your neighbourhood numerologist.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years. He is the author of The Candidate. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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