May 27, 2018, 11:01 pm IST
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The house that Modi built

The house that Modi built

T.P.Sreenivasan, Jun 19, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his term with an ambition not only to bring good days to its people, but also to make India count in the world. His strategy was to pursue the twin objectives of development and security for India through good relations with the neighbors, the industrialized nations and the diaspora. He made Indian foreign policy assertive, clear and transactional. There was a ring of the salesman in his statesmanship. He visited more than forty countries in three years with the message of a strong India, poised to grow fast and prove useful to the rest of the world. He impressed world leaders, made friends among them and demanded a rightful place for India in the world. But at the end of three years, things do not appear to be too positive for India or the world. The global turmoil demands extreme care and alacrity on India’s part to remain politically significant and economically prosperous.

The house that Modi built successfully during this period was a magnificent relationship with the US to which his predecessors had contributed generously. Ignoring the fact that the US had denied him a visa for several years, Modi went to work with Barack Obama, shedding the hesitations of history. In a short period, he visited the US four times and met Obama seven times, once in New Delhi itself. He produced many rabbits from his hat and created a magic world in India-US relations. By the middle of 2016, Modi announced in the US Congress that there would be a new symphony, now that India was a close defense partner of the US with the same access to technology as the allies enjoyed before. Modi had also taken care to signal that India and would stand by the US in the tumultuous waters of the Indian Ocean. He made friends with the leaders of the US industry, who promised him investment, technology and innovation. India-US relations had never been better and the roller coaster had climbed to its highest point.

As Prime Minister Modi prepares for his first encounter with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, it is not clear whether the house that Modi built can be sustained and expanded. The expectation that Trump, with his determination to combat Islamic terrorism, deep suspicion of China and keen business sense, would be a natural ally of India seems to have been belied. The unpredictability of Trump has become legendary in the few months that he has been in power. Though he had declared that he would fight Islamic terrorism, his first official visit abroad as President was to Saudi Arabia and an outcome of his visit was action against Qatar, not against other countries, which have adopted terrorism as a state policy. For Trump, ISIS is the only terrorist organization, not the terrorist outfits like Lashkar, which have been exporting terrorism to India. Pakistan is left scot-free. Modi will naturally brief Trump about the deterioration in the relations with Pakistan and the danger it poses to the security in the region. But there is no guarantee that Trump will take sides. The best that he might offer would be mediation, which Modi is not likely to accept.

Barack Obama had maintained a productive relationship with China, but India was very much on his radar as a possible ally in the event of a confrontation with China. His understanding with Modi on the situation in the Asia Pacific was a factor of stability in Asia. Trump started off as an adversary of China, promising his electorate that China would not be allowed to hurt US interests, particularly through currency manipulation. But the moment the threat from DPRK aggravated, Trump embraced China as a partner. In the circumstances, it is uncertain whether he will stem the tide of Chinese expansionism or give China a free hand in Asia. That might leave India with Japan, Australia and Vietnam as partners to maintain stability in the Asia Pacific. The Chinese mega project of One Belt One Road (OBOR) is clearly designed to ensure Chinese domination over global infrastructure and connectivity and it might alter the development priorities of other states, not to speak of the violation of Indian sovereignty by taking OBOR through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). The US approach to China is crucial in this context and it is important for Modi to make an assessment of the direction the US-China relations are likely to take.

Against the backdrop of various declarations by Trump about migration to the US, ranging from building a wall, travel ban against some countries to prevention of abuse of H1B visas had raised anxieties in India. The matter was apparently raised with the US to avoid dislocation in the IT industry for want of the necessary technical personnel. But the directives given by the President so far are ominous and a discussion at the summit level will remove the remaining uncertainties, including some hate crimes directed against Indian professionals.

Another issue is the apparent contradiction between Trump’s America First, which stresses job creation in the US and Modi’s Make in India, which seeks joint designing and joint production of defense equipment. The heart of the close defense partnership between India and the US is the agreement for co-production. What Trump would like is a massive Indian order for arms like the one he got from Saudi Arabia and placing such an order will go against the grain of Indian aspirations.

Nuclear trade between the US and India, promised under the nuclear deal with George Bush has remained elusive, basically because of Obama’s hesitation to strengthen India’s nuclear capability. The liability law, it is believed, is being used as a smokescreen by the US not to sell nuclear reactors to India. The effort made by Modi to get around the liability law made no headway and the promise held out to build six Westinghouse reactors in Andhra too has fallen by the wayside because of the financial problems of the supplier. Can the Modi-Trump meeting resolve the problems in nuclear trade? If it does, India will get nuclear power and the US will get jobs. But Trump’s policy about nuclear trade with India has not been revealed as such.

India had no reason to make Modi’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement a contentious issue as India had every reason to be dissatisfied by it for having departed from the Kyoto Protocol and the Rio consensus. But, like the Europeans, the Chinese and other developing countries, India too rallied around the Paris Agreement, as though it was a Magna Carta. We could well have accepted renegotiation of the Paris Agreement in the expectation of some improvement in its terms. Since the Governors and the industry will respect the commitment to develop alternate sources of energy, Trump’s action may not have a big impact on climate change.

With all these challenges, Modi has to bear in mind also the clouds gathering around the Trump Presidency on account of the charge of obstruction of justice by disrupting the investigation into the alleged interference of Russia in US Presidential elections. But the unpredictability of Trump, his alienation from Europe and the ongoing investigation may well be a blessing in disguise for India. A good gesture or two by Trump to Modi may alter the situation in our favor. Hope also lies in the fact that, while the President makes declarations, the various checks and balances in the system do not permit unquestioned implementation of all his plans and programs. The wise approach to Modi’s visit is to hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.

T.P Sreenivasan is Former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA and reputed author.

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