PM Modi’s US visit: Looking beyond skies and stars
PM Modi’s just concluded three-day state visit to the US has brought about a paradigm shift in India-US relations and a slew of deals involving cooperation in high-end defence technologies, investments in semiconductor industry and a partnership in quantum, advanced computing and AI, clearly show both countries’ intention to take their ties to new heights
Even the die-hard critic will be forced to look at the visit of Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi to the United States in an objective fashion. Right from the moment he touched down in New York till the time he left Washington DC, Prime Minister Modi was literally engrossed in the task of taking bilateral ties to new heights and in the process setting himself open to newer and challenging ideas from a range of knowledgeable people; and in the hope that India would be carving out a new place in the international system and very much on its own.
For those traditionally in the business of asking “what have you brought back,” the list is indeed quite vast and touches on almost every area that a bilateral relationship is supposed to be. Even long before Modi boarded Air India One, there was this talk of the two countries inking major defence deals such as on jet fighter engines and procuring sophisticated drones—the Predators/Reapers and what not—and perhaps a few more under the Foreign Military Sales programme. The important thing to keep in mind is not the numbers but the fact that the kind of distance that has been travelled.
Just imagine that for a country like the United States that has generally shunned transfer of technology, Washington is not only willing to get on board but also agrees to set up production centers in India. And, defence was not the only “winner” in the Modi visit—India and the United States have agreed to substantially accelerate cooperation in Space, looking beyond the skies and stars to the Moon, Mars and beyond.
All this for an Indian Space Agency that was sanctioned and kept at a distance as the price to pay for the Nuclear Tests of 1998. There was a time when space scientists from India were not granted visas even to attend conferences in the United States!
The state visit of Prime Minister is a win-win for both India and the United States for what has been accomplished goes the distance in enhancing not just bilateral relations at political and strategic levels but touches the core of benefitting peoples of two nations—a point that President Joe Biden made at the White House at the end of his meeting with the Prime Minister.
It is not just signing on to jet engines and production centers, Air India formalising civilian aircrafts from Boeing worth several billion dollars or the prospect of a semiconductor plant in India —all this adds up to spurring economic growth in both countries. As was pointed out, a single order of planes translates into 1 million jobs in 44 states of America.
There had been many high points in Prime Minister Modi’s state visit quite apart from all the atmospherics that went along with it, starting with breaking the Guinness Book of Records on International Yoga Day at the United Nations where some 135 different nationalities led by Modi participated. It was the sixth visit of the Prime Minister to the United States but the first State visit that saw all the pomp and splendor in the South Lawns of the White House in the morning and the glittering dinner gala in the evening.
In between the Prime Minister had the rare distinction of being invited to address a Joint Session of Congress for a second time.
From a political perspective there were two major areas of interest on the Modi visit—the extent to which President Biden was going to lean on the Indian Prime Minister on Russia and China. What transpired between the leaders in their private discussions will not be readily available but for the record the Indian leader made his points clearly and leaving no room for any confusion—reminding Russia that this is “not an era” for wars; and both Russia and China subtly reminded that differences ought to be sorted out through dialogue and in abiding by rules based international order. The texts and the public statements did not mention Moscow and Beijing, but there was no ambiguity in the message.
At an available occasion the Prime Minister did not fail to mention the role of the Indian American community, thousands of whom had travelled from different parts of the country to catch a glimpse of their leader. Modi, in his address to the Congress, did not forget to point out the rapid strides made by the four million odd Indian Americans, including having five lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the person “sitting behind”—Kamala Harris, the Vice President of Indian heritage. And of immense relief to the community was the prospect of having H1B visas and extensions stamped in America itself; and the two countries agreeing to open Consulates in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, and Seattle.
Even before Modi stepped into America there were voices expressing disapproval of the fashion in which the government in New Delhi was going about in dealing with minorities as well as a perceived deficit in democracy by the fashion in which dissenting voices were treated. Close to 70 Democratic lawmakers wrote to President Biden asking for human rights to be prominently addressed and a few members of Congress even stayed away from the joint address of the Prime Minister. And undoubtedly this question came up at the Joint Press Conference that both leaders handled with ease.
Democracy, Modi argued at the East Room of the White House, was not only in spirit but also “runs in our veins” and that this concept has been put into the constitution. ““Our government has taken the basic principles of democracy. And on that basis, our constitution is made and the entire country runs on that — our constitution and government. We have always proved that democracy can deliver. And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender. There is absolutely no space for discrimination … when you talk of democracy, if there are no human values and there is no humanity, there are no human rights, then it is not a democracy”, the Prime Minister said.
For all those who were asking the American President to bring up the topic with his visitor, Biden had this to say: “.… the Prime Minister and I had a good discussion about democratic values…. that is the nature of our relationship: We are straightforward with each other, and — and we respect each other. One of the fundamental reasons that I believe the U.S.-China relationship is not in the space it is with the U.S.- Indian relationship is that there is an overwhelming respect for each other because we are both democracies. And it is a common democratic… character of both our countries — and our people — our diversity; our culture; our open, tolerant, robust debate.”
It is not just the officials of the two countries who have been in the business of diplomacy for a long time to realise the kind of distance that has been travelled; even common folks seem to have an understanding of the kind of changes that have taken place and in what the future could behold.
That said no one can be under the illusion that rapid changes can come about overnight Prime Minister Modi’s visit would seem to convey the message that at the very least India and the United States have embarked on a challenging journey but with a conviction that the largest and oldest democracies acting in unison have much to offer the world.
***The writer was a senior journalist in Washington DC for 14 years, covering North America and the United Nations; views expressed here are personal