Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

India draws US closer despite distractions

The foreign minister’s recent trip to the US snuffed out all talk of coldness creeping into the relationship. Many more strategic engagements are afoot than are usually noted.

During last fortnight when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s patronage of divisive Indo-Canadians, including some accused of terrorist flirtations, brought Ottawa’s relations with New Delhi to its nadir, an entirely contradictory—and happy—story was being played out across the border in Washington. In the presence of external affairs minister S Jaishankar, Indian Americans celebrated harmoniously together the season of interfaith festivals: Janmashtami, Ganesh Chaturthi, Milad-un-Nabi, Gurupurab, Rosh Hashanah and Nowruz.

It was no run-of-the-mill community celebration. The crème de la crème of the Indian American community was in attendance. Many of them spoke at the function and rededicated themselves to India-US relations, which Jaishankar said “will go to the Moon, maybe even beyond”.

The list of those who did so is long—US Congressman Shri Thanedar, deputy secretary of state for management and resources Richard Verma, director of the American National Science Foundation S Panchanathan, US surgeon general Vivek Murthy, White House director of drug control policy Rahul Gupta, President Joe Biden’s domestic policy advisor Neera Tanden, Nisha Biswal, deputy chief executive of America’s aid-investment institution, the International Development Finance Corporation.

The names go on and on. India’s ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, appropriately named the event ‘Colours of Friendship’. India’s unity in diversity, which is often said to be under threat at home and starkly undermined in Canada, was very much in evidence that evening at India House, the embassy residence in Washington.

Refashioning engagement with the ethnic Indian community in the US is part of the Narendra Modi government’s plans to take bilateral relations with Washington to its next logical stage, if not hyperbolically, to the Moon and beyond. Not that his government ever stopped engaging with Indian Americans. However, after the prime minister’s spectacular show at New York’s Madison Square Garden in September 2014, such engagement had become pro forma and lost much of its substance, but not its photo opportunities.

A predictable section of the community gratuitously and frequently rushed to the defence of Modi and present-day India against attacks from liberals in the US media, among think tanks and to some extent on Capitol Hill. But it was done crudely, and as the adage goes, “If you have friends like these, you don’t need enemies.” Modi’s joint appearance with the 45th US President Donald Trump in Houston in September 2019 was only a diversion: the real story of the ‘Howdy, Modi’ gathering is yet to be told, but that is not the subject of this column.

The big demonstration in front of The New York Times headquarters on October 3 offers a peek into a new tactic that will be part of a larger Indian strategy to cement relations with the American government and the people. The strategy faced its biggest challenge since the Pokhran II nuclear tests in 1998 last year—the fallout of war in Ukraine, trade issues, a plurilateral plateau, and to top it all, bad press on the decidedly liberal, parallel, east and west coasts of the US.

The anti-NYT protest was a rare example in the US of liberals turning on liberals. It clearly called for imagination and planning by some elements among the organisers, whose motives are now the subject of intense speculation. The demonstrators accused the powerful New York daily of being responsible for the raids on NewsClick and the arrest of its founder Prabir Purkayastha. They alleged that an investigative story by NYT in August had alerted Indian government agencies to alleged illegal Chinese funding of the news portal. Indians who are in solidarity with NewsClick have also criticised the New York newspaper for its investigation of the news portal.

Ethnic Indians in the US have now scaled unparalleled heights, unlike their counterparts in all but a few other countries. Their successes are also across the board. Indian Americans are on corporate boards, in scientific, space and defence technology institutions, academia and politics from school boards and way up to being a heartbeat away from the White House. Less obtrusively, the years ahead will see their diverse strengths being leveraged more than ever by India to make engagement with the US the ultimate priority in external relations.

Jaishankar and US secretary of state Antony Blinken confirmed that the bilateral 2+2 Dialogue of defence and foreign ministers would take place soon. That was the most definitive signal that Trudeau’s spat with India will not impact India-US relations. The Indian minister’s meeting with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin III reiterated the continued commitment of both sides to INDUS-X, the India-US Defence Acceleration Ecosystem. INDUS-X, launched barely four months ago, is an extension of iCET, the US-India initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology, the most ambitious strategic technology partnership and defence industrial cooperation effort by the two countries ever.

India has always been adept at announcing high-sounding initiatives during VVIP visits in both directions, but has an abysmal record in following up on those announcements. That is changing between New Delhi and Washington. The iCET was announced by Modi and US President Joe Biden in May 2022. With spectacular speed, considering its complex dimensions, iCET became a reality in eight months led by the national security advisors. In an effort to introduce accountability in bureaucratic actions, the INDUS-X agenda provides timelines and metrics to measure progress in implementing collaboration under the scheme.

With such a promising outlook for bilateral relations, trade and commerce continue to be the laggards. Despite the Modi government’s much-touted ambitions to attract foreign investment and increase trade, the India-US Trade Policy Forum, the primary vehicle for achieving this, did not meet for four years until its twelfth session in November 2021. Part of the problem was Donald Trump and his unrealistic demands for “America First”. The policy forum was relaunched before its twelfth session and met again in January 2023 with a lot of fanfare. It is, however, a victim of India’s chronic affliction of poor follow-up. Bilateral trade can make the most positive impact on the peoples of India and the US.

K P Nayar

Strategic analyst

(kpnayar@gmail.com)

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