Banner headlines and over-the-top television anchors gushing about US president Barack Obama accepting prime minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to be chief guest at the 2015 Republic Day celebrations and frenzied prognostications of what this means for bilateral relations, etc. reveals the Indian media’s and the middle class’ gaga attitude to anything American and, in a nutshell, the problem India has in dealing with the United States. Circus is not conducive to diplomacy, which is precisely what visits by US presidents to this country turn out to be when not diplomatic eye candy.
It is usually domestically beleaguered US presidents who jump at such visits. George W Bush came hither in March 2006 when his star was on the wane, his failed military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan daily eroding his political standing in Washington. With a resurgent Republican Party and the Obama administration in second term funk, the US president needs a foreign policy bump to up his domestic ratings. So, what’s better than visiting “extraordinary” India guaranteed to capture the eyeballs at home?
Modi showed during his Madison Square Garden show that he had the Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in the US massively behind him and can, if he chooses to, influence their vote for the Democratic or Republican Party in US elections. This is a completely new phenomenon—the power of the NRIs to push Indian national interest in Western countries, something Modi long ago discovered as Gujarat chief minister. Foreign leaders such as Tony Abbott in Australia are however only now beginning to grasp the importance of cultivating Modi, as did the phalanx of American legislators lining the stage at the New York event that it is not just good foreign policy theatre but courting the wealthy Indian-origin community makes domestic electoral sense.
What was most evident during Modi’s recent travels abroad was the steel in his eye, the no-nonsense look of a man, unswayed by the hoopla around him, who was there to do the nation’s business. He partook of diplomatic niceties and got his way in advancing the national interest (on agricultural subsidies at the summit, for example). Combined with his bonhomie unrestrained by convention, seen in his embracing Abbott on the Brisbane stage even as the rest of that select crowd had stilted smiles and handshakes with a buttoned-up host, it was a one-two punch. Plainly, a bowled-over Abbott (or any of the US lawmakers, for that matter) can’t wait to be India’s best friend!
That hint of steel in Modi has plainly escaped Indian commentators—the same lot who have long pitched for India to be part of the “political West”, and who, because the invitation has been accepted, now expect the Indian prime minister to clamber on to the Obama bandwagon when, in truth, it is the US president who is hitching his horse to Modi’s post.
In any case, for Obama his India visit will be win-win for the simple reason that the attention span of the American public is short, with people being swayed by the momentary diplomatic flash and fandango of the moment featured on their television screens. The US media horde descending on Delhi will ensure he will be in the public eye. Fawning Indians, colour, pageantry, marching columns in brass and buckle dazzle, gaily caparisoned elephants and camels, and the imposing colonial-era buildings on Raisina Hill will complete the exotic backdrop for talks between the two principals. The question is whether the Modi-Obama meeting will produce anything solid.
The growing military links between India and the US is, as former US under-secretary of state Nicholas Burns said, “the glue’’ that is bonding the two countries in their quest to keep an aggressive China in check. Washington would like to cement such security cooperation by getting the Indian government to sign what it refers to as “foundational” agreements. Among the more problematic such accords is the Logistics Support Agreement, for instance, to permit American warships, US Army units, and US Air Force transport and combat planes to stage out of Indian ports and air bases for operations in the Indian Ocean basin and landward.
It is the sort of arrangement during the Cold War that enabled American U-2 spy planes to conduct sorties out of the Bareder air base outside Peshawar to monitor Russian underground nuclear tests at Semipalatinsk-21 testing site in Kazakhstan, and now permits US drone strikes against Taliban targets from the Jacobabad air base in Pakistani Punjab. An LSA once signed will be used by the US for its own purposes which may not always resonate with Indian policies and interest. It will, moreover, mean the US carving out parts of Indian ports and air bases for exclusive use to service their fighting assets deployed in this region. This was not acceptable to the Manmohan Singh government. The nationalist BJP government will be even less amenable to such demands.
India’s requirement of American capital and technology will automatically follow once the Modi government removes the structural and procedural impediments erected by the socialist state of Nehruvian provenance that Indira Gandhi consolidated. This dismantling is what the Indian people and the US are waiting to see happen. Advanced military technology transfer, likewise, should be left to the commercially-minded US defence companies to manage. All the Manohar Parrikar-led defence ministry needs to do is lay down the iron rule that all procurement by the armed services will hereafter only be sourced to Indian companies producing weapons systems and other hardware in toto in-country, as has been decided in flagship programmes such as Project 75i conventional submarine and the Avro 748 airlifter replacement.
The American companies will then fight with their government to release them from technology transfer constraints to enable them to better compete with other foreign firms to partner Indian companies, in the initial stage, to produce the desired items—design to delivery—in India. That’s the way to progress self-reliance in armaments, Modi’s “Make in India” policy and the manufacturing sector, vastly increase opportunities for the youthful demographic bulge to be upskilled and gainfully employed, and cement India-US relations (in that order).
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com