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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 27 , July 1, 2023

Prime Minister‘s visit to the US : India’s Moment or Modi’s Moment? | P S Jayaramu

Saturday 1 July 2023


by P S Jayaramu

25th June 2023

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States was one of the keenly watched event in India and America. It was described by President Biden as the most consequential visit not only for bilateral relations but for the world too. Modi described it as the oldest and largest democracies strengthening their ties for global good. While the BJP sees it as Modi’s moment, it is only fair to see it in the larger perspective of India’s rise as a global power. I will return to this theme later.

At the outset, let me deal with the objectives behind President Biden’s invitation to Modi. Sending a strong message to China that he was determined to involve India in his grand strategy of containing her in the Asia-Pacific region was undoubtedly Biden’s first objective. In a way, the Chinese President and his adventurous foreign policy is driving India and the United Ststes to augment their military-strategic linkages. Biden’s goal was also to signal to the Russian President Vladimir Putin about his desire to rope in India as a non-NATO partner as a counter-weight to Russia. Additionally, by extending an official invitation to Modi to visit the US, Biden was also yielding to the subtle pressures of the India lobby in the US Congress and the larger Indian diaspora. Finally the vast opportunities that India provides to the US industry (including the defence industry) and business conglomerates for investment was yet another factor in Biden’s decision.

As for Modi, the invitation was a welcome thing. Though he had met President Biden at the G-7 and G-20 summits earlier, the goal of committing America officially for India’s development in the scientific, defence, industrial and academic sectors drove Modi to accept the invitation. Modi must have also thought that a State visit to the US would add to his already well established stature as a global leader. It was also an opportunity to counter the Chinese President who is projecting himself aggressively at the international level and in the developing South.

Against the above background, let me focus my attention on the visit itself . President Biden described Modi’s visit as the defining moment in US-India relations having significant consequences for the world. Prime Minister Modi responded in equal measure. In his address to the joint session of the US Congress, he agreed with his host and called the visit a symbol of the defining partnership between India and the US in the 21st century. Modi further alluded to the goal of maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific. As the current President of G-20, Modi emphasised the crucial role of the Global South in world affairs and the need for making Africa a full-fledged member of the group.

Referring to the imperative of international peace, Modi reiterated that this is not the age of wars and highlighted the urgency for finding a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict which is causing enormous destruction and misery to the people in Europe and the developing world. However, it remains to be seen whether President Biden’s plan of involving India in the NATO-plus front against Russia would fructify. The challenge before India is to press for and practice strategic autonomy in the conduct of our foreign policy with respect to both Russia and China, while maintaining the upswing in Indo-American defence relations. Getting too close to the United States may result in China further flexing its military muscle. It might also affect our time-tested relationship with Russia.

It is worth looking at the major gains of Modi’s US visit. The joint statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs emphasised the commitment of the two countries for: (a) greater cooperation in the manufacturing of GE F-41jet engines in India by the HAL in collaboration with the US General Electric Company. It is reported that the US is not giving this technology to her alliance partners too. (b) NASA and ISRO working together to set up a space station in the moon, (c) signing of an MOU on Semiconductor by Micron Technology company by investing up to 825 million US dollars for semiconductor assembly and testing facility in India. (d) The two leaders also agreed to promote collaboration among the industry, academia and the government for mutual benefit by involving the American National Science Foundation and the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology as well as the need for harnessing the benefits of digital technology and artificial intelligence. In his characteristic style, Modi told the US Congress that the two AI’s, artificial intelligence and America and India, will work for the benefit of the global community.

While Prime Minister Modi and President Biden demonstrated their keenness to carry bilateral relations to greater heights, it remains to be seen how enthusiastic would the bureaucracies in the two countries, specially in India, be in impementing their decisions and agreements in a time-bound manner. We cannot forget the fact that the Civil Nuclear Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (popularly known as the Nuclear Deal) signed by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh and President George Bush in 2006 to promote civilian nuclear cooperation between the two countries witnessed a huge delay to show its results.

In inclusion, I return to the question raised in the beginning of this article about whether it was India’s moment or Modi’s moment that we witnessed at the conclusion of Prime Minister’s US visit. Realistically speaking, given the huge advantages India enjoys in terms of its geo-strategic location, raising economic and industrial strength, demographic advantages, growing military might, technological prowess and the resilience of its democratic institutions,( in short, its hard and soft power strength) any Prime Minister at this point of time would have been invited by the US leadership to provide greater thrust to bilateral relations, though undoubtedly, Narendra Modi has acted as a strong catalyst in contributing to the upswing in Indo-US bilateral relations. Viewed in this sense, it was truly an Indian moment and not so much Modi’s moment, as many in the BJP would make us believe.

(Author: P S Jayaramu is former Professor of Political Science, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi)

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