Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Operation Modi storm?

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It was a visit marked by showmanship and flair. But in concrete terms, what did Modi’s visit achieve?

By Anita Katyal

When senior BJP leader LK Advani described Narendra Modi as an excellent event manager, he was not far off the mark. The prime minister lived up to his reputation as the ultimate showman on his first official visit to the US. He was feted and fawned upon by adoring Indian Americans who treated him like a rockstar, while the Obama administration rolled out the red carpet for a man they had once shunned.

The specifics of the relationship were addressed in a joint agreement, finalized after a lengthy one-to-one meeting between Obama and Modi. According to Milan Vaishnav, associate, South Asia Program Carnegie Endow-ment for International Peace, the rhetoric and body language of both leaders suggested that they were able to set aside past differences. Modi also connected with the business community to assure them that economic reforms in India were on track and that his government was eager to facilitate foreign investors to set up shop here.


So far, so good. But what did the high-octane visit really achieve? Was it all hype or did it really pave the way for “a transformative relationship” between the world’s largest and oldest democracies? Vaishnav says that Modi came to America with three objectives: to rally the diaspora, to convince the US private sector that India was again “open for business” and to reset relations with the US government. “While Modi was largely successful in doing all three, gains will materialize in real terms only if he is able to fulfil his mandate at home to revive India’s sagging economy,” he underlined.

Vaishnav says both were keen to recommit to a reinvigorated relationship. “Yet, their job is only beginning; the true test is whether these two men will be able to whip their bureaucracies into living up to the lofty rhetoric of their joint statement.”
A former diplomat says: “It is wrong to judge a summit only in terms of tangibles,” he said. “A summit is meant to engage a person and establish rapport. On these two counts, the PM’s visit was a success.”


The American media, however, was not too hopeful about the meeting as it pertinently pointed that differences over taxation laws, India’s intellectual property, trade, investment policies and civilian nuclear energy are yet to be sorted out. The WTO stand-off figured in the discussions, as did India’s concern over easing access for its service sector professionals in the US market.

The landmark civil nuclear deal, which was sealed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is yet to be implemented, as US companies have serious reservations about India’s nuclear liability law which holds suppliers liable in case of accidents. This issue came up during the Obama-Modi meeting, but there were no solutions. The two sides merely decided to establish an inter-agency contact group to iron out all pending issues.

Similarly, Obama agreed that India meets Missile Technology Control Regime requirements and is ready for membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement on arms trade treaty and the Australia Group. The US president reiterated his government’s support to India’s claim for a permanent seat on the Security Council. But on both counts, the agreement failed to spell out any time-frame, indicating that this show of support was just that: a mere show.

For a large part, the joint statement (JS) was nothing more than a promise by both countries to address pending issues. Former ambassador MK Bhadra Kumar, dismissed the document as worthless. “The Americans have not touched even with a barge pole Modi’s much-vaunted ‘Made in India global initiative’. They simply ignored it in the JS,” he posted on his blog.

He asked, “If economic diplomacy is the driving force of Modi’s foreign policy, what has he got out of Obama? Peanuts. Some more ‘task forces’ or ‘working groups’ have been constituted in investment, infrastructure, intellectual property, higher education, ‘climate resilience’, nuclear power projects, Energy Smart Cities Partnership, Clean Energy Finance Forum and, of course, in defence trade and technology.”


The joint statement, however, did score in addressing regional security issues and sending out messages to both Pakistan and China. Expressing concern over the growing menace of terrorism, India and the US agreed to make “joint and concerted efforts” to dismantle safe havens of Pakistan-based terrorists groups and called upon Islamabad to bring the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks to justice. The document listed Al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the D-Company and the Haqqani Network as the groups which had to be destroyed. This is the first time that the D-company has been included in the list of terror groups.

Modi and Obama also sent out a signal to China by expressing “concern about rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes” and “affirmed the importance of freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”. This is another first and comes in the backdrop of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to India, which was overshadowed by reports of repeated border incursions.

Looking to the future, Vaishnav mentions three possible bright spots: One, the decision by the two leaders to renew the US-India Defence Framework Agreement for another decade. Two, the two countries struck a number of deals in the energy sphere, including the US committing $1 billion toward climate resilience and an Energy Smart Cities Part-nership. Three, the two sides opened the door to closer partnership on financial sector issues.

A beginning has been made by Modi and Obama to repair the tattered Indo-US relationship. But their rhetoric must be followed by concrete action. Only then, can both congratulate each other for a successful mission.

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