Beyond the atmospherics
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s long-awaited visit to the United States will see a breathless stream of activity. He will address the United Nations General Assembly, meet several dignitaries, like UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, former US President Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary. Mr Modi will meet CEOs of several companies, address 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden and be introduced by actor Hugh Jackman at a 50,000-strong concert. He will then meet US President Barack Obama at the White House and other luminaries on Washington’s political scene.
Mr Modi’s calendar is clearly aimed at getting acquainted with America’s political and business elite — to initiate steps that can invigorate what many characterise as an underperforming relationship. India-US ties have many things going for it. Bilateral trade is worth $100 billion, the Indian elite sends its children to American universities by the thousands, India is a major buyer of American weaponry, both sides share strategic perspectives on China and have a structured high-level dialogue covering a range of issues. And yet there is a sense among strategic thinkers that the relationship has gone off the boil after the heyday of the India-US nuclear deal. Issues like India’s nuclear liability law, New Delhi’s stance on the trade facilitation agreement at the WTO, differences over intellectual property regimes, and India’s fitful approach to economic reform have choked potential. Mr Modi will be keen to arrest the slide, keen as he is to source foreign capital to drive India’s infrastructure development. He will also be well aware of the US’ continuing importance when it comes to running global institutions, accessing high technology, innovation and shale gas, countering terrorism and balancing the rise of China.
The visit is a good chance to discern the depth of US’ interest in India while the Obama administration is distracted by the crises in West Asia and Ukraine alongside domestic battles with the Republicans over the budget, immigration and healthcare. The visit is expected to yield deliverables like the joint development of weapon systems, but the real measure of success would be if both leaders come away with a clear understanding of what they need to do to impart some momentum to bilateral ties.