Modi’s priority in US is trade, not politics
Compared to the somewhat muted reaction to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration of the ‘Make In India’ campaign at Vigyan Bhavan last Thursday, the media has definitely worked itself into a frenzy over his visit to the United States.
In the early days after the general election, the excitement was over the US administration having to eat humble pie over Modi’s visa. But this was less of an issue than was made out to be. When Modi was gratuitously denied a visa to visit the US, a country he had often visited in the past as a private citizen, the decision was out-and-out political. It is needless at this juncture to speculate over which lobby exercised the greatest pressure: The human rights crusaders or the Christian evangelists. Needless to say, once a political decision became self-evidently a liability, the US administration moved fast to reverse it. Even as the campaign was on, the then US Ambassador travelled to Gandhinagar and restored diplomatic contact.
And within a day of the 16th May verdict, the visa problem was sorted out with President Obama’s phone call and personal invitation to Modi to visit him at the White House.
The point is simple: Like most Governments, the US responds politically and with flexibility. The principle “show me the person and I shall show you the law” isn’t merely a time-honoured Indian tradition. Western democracies have perfected it to a fine art.
Whether Modi and Obama hit it off personally – as many strategic pundits feel they must if India-US ties are going to rediscover the bonhomie under President George W Bush – is an open question. My own feeling is that two flamboyant personalities don’t often gel. In addition, Obama’s Ivy League assumptions may be at odds with Modi who is inclined to favour the do-able to abstractions. Nevertheless, how the two leaders engage with each other will be closely observed, not least by the Indian media that still regards a White House meeting with about the same reverence as an audience with God.
Modi would certainly be anxious to ensure that there is a rapport with the White House but his US visit isn’t over-dependent on that. Judging by the pre-visit choreography, it would appear that Modi’s priorities are two-fold: To sell India to the corporate and financial leaders of the US, and to energise the Indian diaspora.
Let’s look at the diaspora issue first. More than any Prime Minister, Modi looks upon overseas Indians as assets in the larger project of nation-building and the projection of India in the world. But his target is not the disposable dollars of people with OCI cards. The days of targeting diaspora money as a way of circumventing the larger global investors’ indifference to India is gone. Modi wants to talk up the Indian community and give it a sense of pride for a new India because he believes the positive sentiment will be contagious. One of the reasons why India slipped away from the world’s consciousness in the past eight years or so was on account of Indians themselves becoming bearish on their country. To create excitement in the global capitals about India, Modi first needs to create a buzz among all Indians, at home and abroad. It is important to remember that the strategic clout of overseas Indians in Wall Street and in the big US corporations are far in excess of the political influence of that community in the US.
This leads on to the principal focus of Modi’s US visit. Unlike Japan where the focus was on that country’s strategic decision to shore up India as an economic counter-weight to an aggressive China, Modi would like to promote India in the US as an aspect of good business rather than correct politics. Many of the issues that agitate US business, such as India’s lax intellectual copyright regime and price undercutting, cannot be fully resolved. To concede too much on these issues would be politically unrewarding and there is just no guarantee that the US will reciprocate by diverting manufacturing to India. For India, the importance of Wall Street (as, indeed, London) is paramount. Modi would like to transform the relative indifference of mutual funds, pension funds and individual investments towards India into inquisitiveness and, finally, enthusiasm.
This is a monumental challenge and the returns will not accrue unless there is sustained follow-up both at home and abroad. What Modi is seeking is to develop India into an economic power-house and generate the kind of excitement that once grew around the Asian Tigers and China. This, of course, necessitate smart diplomacy and perhaps even a total reorientation of the Indian Foreign Service. But equally it requires the determination of the Indian citizenry to break out of a chalta hai mindset.
As of now, the government is showing the early signs of determination but society is yet to be moved. To motivate Indian society is actually Modi’s biggest challenge. The Amriki approval may help in that direction, but only in a small way. In the past, India has been its own worst enemy.