Time to push ‘reset’ button
Frank Islam (Issues) / 26 May 2014
A brand new beginning for US and India is the need of the hour
The resounding verdict given by the people of India in favour of a Bharatiya Janata Party government led by Narendra Modi provides a great opportunity for Washington and New Delhi to press the proverbial “reset” button on their relations, which have been anything but warm for more than a year.
Suggestions that India-US relations, described not long ago by President Obama as “a defining partnership of the 21st century,” would need a restart and rebranding would have been scoffed at a few years ago. But anyone who has followed the bilateral ties in recent times would know that a new beginning is the need of the hour.
Even though the bilateral trade reached an all-time high last year, the two nations have not been on the same page on any number of issues lately. The United States has been complaining vehemently about India’s failure to protect intellectual property rights of US companies and the lack of progress in the implementation of civil nuclear issues, to name two contentious issues.
India, on the other hand, has been crying foul at the immigration reform bill that the Senate passed in 2013 and the White House backed, saying that it amounted to protectionism and institutionalisation of discrimination against Indian information technology companies. Many Indian companies that are dependent on H1-B visas would be penalised under the comprehensive immigration reform bill.
New Delhi has also been unhappy about what it deems as an aggressive anti-India posture by some US companies and the support they have drawn on Capitol Hill. Many of these American companies had given up on the Manmohan Singh government, citing its inability to carry forward with the reforms, long before the Indian electorate decided to oust it.
Then, in December, Indian diplomat Devyani Khobgrade was arrested in New York over immigration violations and was eventually deported. India responded furiously by announcing a number of retaliatory measures, including removal of non-reciprocal privileges that US diplomats enjoyed in Delhi.
Another sign that all was not good between the two capitals was the very few high-level bilateral visits since Singh’s Washington trip last September. Few Indian officials have visited Washington since the Khobragade incident, although the ongoing election campaign also played a part in that.
The change of guard in New Delhi and the ascension of Modi, whose business-friendly policies in Gujarat have won him a number of admirers in Washington, seem to have already set in motion the process of closer business relations.
In Washington, no one is more ecstatic than the US business community, which had put a lot of pressure on the White House to act tough with New Delhi in recent months. It is no secret which party and candidate they have been rooting for privately and publicly in the Indian election.
“USIBC member companies stand ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work with the new government to advance the US-India partnership and deepen bilateral economic ties,” said Indian American Ajay Banga, US IBC chairman and president and CEO of MasterCard, said in a statement issued just hours after it became clear that the BJP leader will head the next government in New Delhi.
There is no doubt that American businesses will now have an extended honeymoon with the Modi government. Much of the capital that flew out of the country because of the Singh government’s indifference is likely to return to India now. A big reason the Indian economy was underperforming was because of the investors turning their back on the country.
But while the differences with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government were mostly on the policy front, with Modi the main challenge is of a personal nature. The denial of visa to the BJP leader nine years ago by the Department of State on account of his government’s complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots surely embarrassed Modi. Despite a campaign by his supporters to get the ban lifted, it remained in place until now.
To its credit, the White House has been preparing for Modi’s ascendancy ever since Modi was named the prime ministerial candidate by the BJP. Its efforts to “pivot”—to borrow another term that is in vogue in Washington foreign policy circles in the context of America’s relations with East Asia—toward the BJP and Modi began in February, when Ambassador Nancy Powell met Modi in Ahmadabad.
While visiting India in March, Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal said that the United States would do business with Modi if he becomes the prime minister.
On Friday, Obama called Modi to congratulate him on the electoral victory. A statement issued by the White House said the president “invited Narendra Modi to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time to further strengthen our bilateral relationship.” That should put an end to any doubts on the visa issue.
It is highly likely that, with Modi at the helm, the bilateral relations will be back on track. But will Obama be able to share the same kind of warm personal friendship with Modi that he had with Singh? Albeit the many differences that dogged the bilateral ties in recent times, the president and the prime minister have always got along very well.
“It has been a great pleasure to serve with you, there are very few people in public life that I have admired or appreciated more,” Obama reportedly told Singh in a phone call soon after he left the office.
Modi is said to be a man with a long memory, who doesn’t forget and forgive slights. But he is also a pragmatic person. As the Gujarat chief minister, he has done an extremely nice balancing act between pro-Hindutva forces on the one side and market forces on the other.
One hopes that his pragmatic side will prevail in dealing with the United States. (Global India Newswire)
The writer, an Indian American, is a Democratic party donor and a member of the board of trustees of American University in Emirates (AUE).