Prime Minister Modi’s forthcoming state visit to the US has generated much curiosity among foreign watchers as it is expected to open a new chapter in the bilateral relations of the two countries
When the curtains come down on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States many perhaps will come away with the impression that the trip turned out to be one of critical importance to both nations, the Indo-Pacific and the world at large.

Those with political blinders and blinkers will make the point that the only thing Modi came away with was racking up his skymiles account on Air India One.

Personally, neither Prime Minister Modi nor President Joe Biden would have much to gain from the atmospherics of a state visit. Modi, according to surveys, is already the “most” popular world leader; and is certainly not looking at his Washington trip to help him electorally next year.

President Biden, on the other hand, is quite low in the voting poll where even in America, a good percentage of Democrats do not want him to be on the ticket in November 2024. And foreign policy hardly matters in an American electoral scene. Still, of the two Biden would seem to have more to gain.

If anything meaningful is to emerge from PM Modi’s visit in substantive terms both India and the US will have to patiently factor in limitations on hand; and no superficial glossing over realities is going to help.

There is frustration in Washington as to why New Delhi is not taking the plunge by signing huge contracts for Indian Air Force jets, forgetting for a minute the genuine apprehensions of operational issues, supplies of spares (especially in an emergency) and generally the issue of technology transfer and setting up of manufacturing hubs in India. All this is not to forget the role of the U.S. Congress and individual law makers’ apprehensions.

Washington, for its part, will have to understand that New Delhi cannot arbitrarily close the gates for other suppliers who have been in the business for a long time. In the realm of defence purchases India has left the door open to acquiring or keeping options alive with countries like France even while actively sourcing transport planes and attack helicopters from the US.

To keep abreast of the global challenges, India is looking for sophisticated weaponry for the Army, Navy and Air Force, areas that are full of potential for American companies.

In fact, one of the biggest expectations of Prime Minister Modi’s visit is of a major breakthrough on jet engines that would include sales, technology transfer and production centers as a part of “Make in India” framework.

India also is looking to expand its drone’s inventory by seeking latest Predators and Reapers from the United States to augment its surveillance capabilities on land, air, and sea.

This is an area that is said to have high priority and likely sealed during the Modi visit. But the constraint, especially for technology transfer and eventual Indian centers of production could be that present technologies could have to be signed off by third party entities protected by intellectual property rights.

The civilian nuclear deal inked by the two nations showed that at any time talks floundered at the delegation levels, President George Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepped in to give relevant instructions.

That is not to be seen as a sign of political weakness but as a desire of the leadership to intervene in the larger interests of bilateral relations. The same strategy must be for both Modi and Biden, especially to the American leader who will see himself pressured not just from the Capitol Hill but also from those seeking to interject extraneous issues.

To some in the Biden administration Modi’s state visit could be a “last ditch” attempt to try and cajole India into the anti-Russia bandwagon in the context of the war in Ukraine.

That this could be sheer waste of time and political capital has been recognized by many who have come to define the real challenge to Washington coming not from Moscow but from Beijing.

It is not as if Russia is a spent force in international affairs but that it is China that is making uncomfortable noises in its relations with Washington and New Delhi, not to mention its aggressive posturing in the Indo Pacific.

As if to remind Biden as what his predecessors did by way of installing listening posts overseas to monitor activities of the erstwhile Soviet Union and China, it is said that Beijing is getting positioned to have one of its own in Cuba, some 100 miles off the coast of Florida, to snoop on the military activities of United States, especially that of the Central Command.

It would indeed be awkward for Washington to protest and Biden needs to go no further than just ask the Central Intelligence Agency of its activities in the 1960s!

Politically and strategically the point of convergence for India and the United States is the Indo Pacific where the oceans throw up the challenge of freedom of navigation and the imperative to adhere to international laws and norms.

And it is not merely confined to the South China Seas and the Spratlys where six nations including China and Taiwan are locked in a battle of wits over supposed oil and natural gas reserves. For a long time, China has been casting its net on the smaller nations and islands, only now for others like the United States and Australia to wake up.

It is easy for China to condemn the QUAD as an Asian NATO forgetting for a minute that its own posturing had led to the formation of an alliance that is likely to expand to bring in countries like South Korea. The Quad has a lot in common to keep a careful eye on China.

The war in the Ukraine has shown not just the limitations of Russia but also in the emerging capabilities of China. In one stroke President Xi Jinping has shown that he can get closer to Russia but also keep Vladimir Putin at a distance.

The fashion in which Prime Minister Modi’s programme has been arranged it would seem that hosts have left room for ample qualitative discussions for their guest.

This is reflected in not just the state dinner planned at the White House on June 22, but the private dinner that will take place with the Bidens on June 21 and the high-profile lunch hosted by the Vice President Kamala Harris at Foggy Bottom (State Department) on June 23.

In all these Prime Minister Modi has the fine opportunity to share his mind and learn more deeply of the other perspective and all in the realm of privacy. But for those in the game of speculation, contents of the conversations will only be known to a chosen few.

It is not as if Pakistan will not be discussed but as always it will be in the context of that country being an epi-center of global terror and the principal instigator and perpetrator of cross border terrorism. Successive administrations in Washington for decades have been in denial of the billions of taxpayers’ money in the drain on the scandalous refrain of fighting terrorism.

Talking about Pakistan to President Biden who has been in the political corridors of Washington DC for fifty years or more would be a waste of time. Islamabad laying the guilt trip on America is an all too familiar game for India to be entertained. Irrespective of what the hosts say about ‘reining’ in Pakistan, PM Modi will have to take it with a huge grain of salt and move on.

To the three million plus Indian Americans, PM Modi's visit is once again the opportunity to showcase the distance the community has travelled to leave a mark in the system in literally every field of choice including politics.

Supporters of the Indian Prime Minister in the United States will come in large numbers to see him but ideally would have wanted the Prime Minister to travel across to rousing receptions. This is precisely what planners did not want. The idea was not to get distracted but stay focused on the finer aspects of a relationship that is undoubtedly moving fast despite occasional pinpricks.

***The writer was a senior journalist in Washington DC for 14 years, covering North America and the United Nations; views expressed here are personal