(Published in The News (Pakistan) - October 05, 2014)

by Praful Bidwai

Modi and the Americans In September every year, leaders of more than 190 nations, whether big or small, get a chance to make long speeches at the United Nations General Assembly, which are usually attended by nobody except their own diplomats and journalists. They use lofty rhetoric on world affairs while scoring points against their adversaries – their real target. Their ‘patriotic’ media dutifully reports on their speeches at length. The rest of the world ignores them. So does the UN!

Prime Minister Narendra Modi played out the same charade last fortnight, when he made a speech to the General Assembly hall which was two-thirds empty. He said nothing substantive. Yet the Indian media, in full attendance, spent hours analysing it.

The same was true of Modi’s Madison Square Garden event, for which the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (the RSS’s overseas affiliate) mobilised 19,000 people, each of whom paid $5000 to $10,000 to attend. Most were non-resident Indians (NRIs), who are culturally insecure and divided over their identity. They long for the country they have left behind and try to manufacture its images through arcane rituals and obscurantist practices, which resident middle class Indians discarded long ago.

This was a real American-Indian circus, dominated by a rowdy crowd which chanted ‘Har har Modi’ and assaulted a TV anchor for asking routine questions without even a hint of irreverence. The chanting impelled the event’s announcer to say: “It’s starting to sound like a campaign rally…Remember, he’s already elected.”

The publicity material for this jamboree announced: “India has witnessed a century of change in Modi’s first 100 days” as Prime Minister. Displaying his obsession with bad alliterations, Modi spoke of the ‘Three Ds’ (democracy, demographic dividend and demand) as the key to India’s progress.

Underscoring his bilateral talks in Washington, Modi declared his visit “very successful and satisfactory” and announced “Thank You America!” He said President Obama’s interaction with him – the president threw a special dinner for him with 20 guests, and took him on a tour of the King Memorial – gave the relationship a “new dimension.”

Much was also made of their joint editorial for The Washington Post. But there’s nothing unique about this. Such joint articles are a standard practice even with leaders of much smaller countries. In 2009, Manmohan Singh was given much more lavish treatment, including a dinner with 300 guests.

As The New York Times put it, Obama wanted to spotlight his “hopes for working with Mr Modi while not lavishing the full measure of White House pageantry on a leader who until recently was barred from entering the US because of the allegations of human rights abuses …”

The joint Modi-Obama ‘vision statement’ for the US-India Strategic Partnership is full of inanities such as working together “not just for the benefit of both our nations, but for the benefit of the world”, and “reducing the salience of nuclear weapons” – just when both states are building up or modernising their nuclear arsenals. (The US is launching a $1,000 billion modernisation programme. India, like Pakistan, is stockpiling fuel for more bombs.)

True, a number of India-US agreements were signed or initialled: renewing a 10-year defence cooperation framework, promoting investment, development of ‘smart cities’, visa-on-arrival for US citizens beginning 2015, sale of armaments, cooperation in science and technology, and promotion of renewable energy.

But this happened in all recent visits of Indian prime ministers to the US. Such discrete agreements don't add up to a breakthrough. Besides, renewable energy isn’t a forte of the US; its economy is addicted to fossil fuels and it’s a laggard in green technologies in the First World.

The effort to mend recent strains in India-US relations was only partly successful. Modi's visit failed to rekindle the drive for a closer, qualitatively new bilateral relationship – or as some wide-eyed admirers of America put it, ‘romance’. Two major thorny issues still remain unaddressed: actualisation of the US-India nuclear deal through reactor imports, and India's position on trade-related and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues in the World Trade Organisation negotiations.

Six years after the nuclear deal was finalised and approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, not a single commercial reactor contract has materialised with the US, France or Russia. This is partly because reactor manufacturers are loath to accept the Indian nuclear liability law, which extends liability to suppliers in certain cases while holding the operator primarily responsible for damages in case of accidents.

Yet it is hard to see how the Modi government can change the law, which is the result of an all-party consensus reached through hard-nosed bargaining. Nor can US nuclear manufacturers, who depend on a Japanese company for a critical component of all large reactors, make do without Japan's consent through the signature of an agreement similar to the US-India deal. This hasn't materialised.

To indicate its ‘flexibility’ on the IPR issue just before Modi's visit, the Indian government suddenly reduced the range of drugs subjected to price control by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, including widely prescribed medicines for the treatment of diabetes, cancer, tuberculosis, cardiac disease and HIV-AIDS. This move was clearly meant to favour US manufacturers of these drugs and prepare the way for a change in India's IPR regime.

This will raise the prices of these essential medicines and harm the interests of millions of Indians. But deplorable as this move is, it is unlikely to placate the US which wants comprehensive concessions from India on a whole gamut of trade-related issues, including artificially freezing the prices of food procured for India's public distribution system at their level in the mid-1980s.

The US was keen on roping India into its so-called war on the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (IS), an organisation for whose birth the west bears responsibility. India has not joined 70-nation coalition. This isn’t an act of great wisdom, but reflects pure, unrefined pragmatism: it’s easy to see that IS won’t be destroyed by aerial strikes alone.

Where Washington has succeeded is in getting India closer to a “China containment” strategy. Thus the India-US joint statement specifically mentions the situation in the South China Sea, and expresses concern over the “rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes”, obviously referring to Chinese claims to territories in the region. This is the first time that India has taken a position so close to that of the US. This does not bode well for the future.

There is of course much talk of closer Indo-US cooperation against terrorism and cutting off financial and tactical support to Al-Qaeda, IS, the Haqqani network and Dawood Ibrahim. But nobody should have illusions that the US will help India cope with the specific terrorist threats it faces – even as it extracts an Indian commitment to help fight the terrorism that menaces the US.

The US is not known for equal or symmetrical relationships even with its own allies. There is only finger on the gun that Nato wields, and that is American. The primary purpose of Modi’s hyper-activism on foreign policy issues, of which his US visit is part, may have more to do with winning personal legitimation from the west than with substance.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.

Email: prafulbidwai1@yahoo.co.in