Thanks to the efforts and adulation of his fan club in the United States, Narendra Modi looks all set to stage a spectacular public event at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Sunday. Already, BJP leaders are saying the Prime Minister will attract a larger crowd than any other foreign leader has managed on American soil so far. They’ve forgotten about Fidel Castro, of course, whose dramatic 1959 visit soon after the Cuban Revolution drew crowds of 35,000 at one site alone. The seating capacity at Madison Square Garden, in contrast, is approximately 20,000.
The public event is important for Modi because it will allow the marketing of his visit to the U.S. as a triumph even if there is no dramatic takeaway from either the White House or the United Nations.
At UN headquarters overlooking the East River, the PM will deliver a cookie-cutter speech without the novelty value of delivery in Hindi since Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been there and done that. Had the India-Pakistan dialogue process not been called off on a political whim before it barely started, Modi’s UN visit might have occasioned a successful meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and even the possibility of a breakthrough development on an issue like trade. As of now, however, such a meeting looks highly doubtful, as does the possibility of any forward movement.
Turning to Washington, Modi’s meeting with President Barack Obama is very significant at both the individual and system-wide level but is unlikely to help either side move bilateral ties on to a higher plane.
For all the attention it has deserved, the visa issue is only a footnote in a relationship whose plot line, belying the raciness which we saw during the Vajpayee and early Manmohan years, has meandered into a predictable dullness in which nothing very dramatic or new happens.
In 2005, the U.S. revoked Modi’s tourist/business visa under a section of its Immigration and Nationality Act which, in the words of David C. Mulford, who was U.S. ambassador to India at the time, “makes any foreign government official who ‘was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom’ ineligible for a visa to the United States.” Mulford made it clear that Modi’s ineligibility sprang not for from allegations of his individual culpability for the anti-Muslim violence but “on the fact that, as head of the State government in Gujarat between February 2002 and May 2002, he was responsible for the performance of state institutions at that time.” Ironically, the revoked visa had been issued in 2003, a year after the violence.
The fact that this visa revocation occurred in 2005—when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was in power in India—and not earlier, when the BJP ruled via the National Democratic Alliance tells us the U.S. concern for “religious freedom” is politically expedient. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that once Modi became the front-runner in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Washington found a way to signal an end to its untenable (and insulting) visa denial policy. Once the results came out, Obama was quick to reach out with his invitation and Modi was quick to accept.
While the visa issue has fast-tracked a summit that might otherwise have taken several months to materialize, there are three major obstacles that Obama and Modi need to surmount if they want a step-change in relations.
First, the U.S. must stop demanding that India amend its Nuclear Liability legislation so as to insulate American reactor vendors from claims arising from any nuclear accident that is traced back to patent or latent defects in their equipment. While the Modi government has quietly diluted several environmental norms to make it easier for mining and manufacturing companies to operate, any change in the liability law will trigger a firestorm of political protest. The Obama administration believes Modi has the political heft to see through any public anger but this may not be a risk the new government is willing to take. In addition, Washington’s insistence that India allow it to directly track the progress of US-obligated material through the Indian nuclear cycle has delayed the completion of a key agreement to reprocess spent fuel. India argues that all foreign nuclear material is already safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency and that it cannot allow supplier nations the right to individually monitor ‘their’ material. The matter has been under negotiation for over two years now with no breakthrough in sight.
Second, both the Obama administration and Capitol Hill take a hostile view of India’s patent legislation and want a dilution of provisions which make it harder for multinational pharmaceutical companies to ‘evergreen’ their patents or challenge the compulsory-licensing of crucial life-saving drugs. Conditioned by their understanding of China—in To Steal a Book is an Elegant Offense, Harvard scholar William P. Alford traces the lack of respect for intellectual property rights in China all the way back to the origins of Chinese civilization—Americans tend to look at India too as an IPR scofflaw. India has regularly featured on the ‘Special 301’ watch list which the administration issues to identify countries whose IPR laws are not hospitable enough for U.S. firms to make super-profits. The reality is that the Indian patent law is fully compliant with the rules of the World Trade Organisation. The law is also essential for the protection of public health and any dilution would hurt India’s poor the hardest.
Third, despite India buying over $10 billion worth of American weapons since 2003, there continues to be a mismatch in the Indo-US understanding of defence cooperation. The Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTII) signed in 2012 was meant to serve as the springboard for US investment in the Indian defence sector and for the transfer of technology. So far, however, nothing much has happened. The Modi government has hiked the FDI limit in defence from 26 per cent to 49 per cent but US weapons manufacturers want a majority stake in any joint venture.That threshold has been set because private Indian defence players like the Tatas and Mahindra & Mahindra fear ceding control to prospective foreign partners. Apart from FDI limits, the proposed sale of the Javelin anti-tank guided missile has also been stymied over technology transfer issues. Arun Jaitley will visit Washington in October in his capacity as part-time Defence Minster but an easy resolution of these differences seems some distance away.
There are other issues too, such as the dispute at the WTO over India’s demand that developing countries should have the freedom to use subsidies as a means of ensuring food security, but those seem less intractable.
Finally, there is also the question of worldview, where the two countries have not always seen eye to eye.
In a recent article, Ashley Tellis has said Modi and Obama need to focus on the big strategic picture that brought India and the US closer together from 2003 onwards. For Tellis and others like him, this ‘big picture’ is Sinocentric: “[R]obust ties with the United States would deepen Indian security, facilitate its embrace in the wider Indo-Pacific region, and increase its bargaining capacity with formidable rivals such as China, including on matters that directly affect its territorial integrity.” Attractive though this proposition sounds, especially when Chinese incursions along the border have caused so much disquiet in India, Indian policymakers have traditionally been wary of looking at relations with the U.S. and China as a zero-sum game. Today, when long-term U.S. allies like Japan have started to debate Washington’s staying power and capabilities in Asia, India needs to be especially careful about how it approaches the Asian balance of power. Besides, U.S. policies in the region such as its invasion of Iraq, its exacerbation of the Shia-Sunni divide and its support for Syria rebels, have also vitiated the security scenario for India. There is, of course, still a strategic rationale for India to seek closer ties with the U.S. but the end-goal must be to increase—and not restrict—its room for manoeuvre within the international system.