White House awaits Modi

white houseNot long ago, Narendra Modi was not welcome in the US. But the US is now pulling out all stops to woo him when he comes calling at the White House as India’s prime minister at the end of this month.

President Barack Obama will host a dinner for him Sep 29 before bilateral talks at the White House the next day and this will be followed by a lunch hosted by Vice President Joe Biden at the State Department.

What a difference an election makes! Long forgotten is Modi’s alleged inaction or complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots that led the State Department to revoke his visa in 2005.

Modi may not have forgotten, but he too is not letting his personal feelings come in the way of repairing India-US ties which touched a low last December over the arrest and strip search of India’s then deputy consul general in New York for alleged visa fraud and underpaying her nanny.

For, if Obama has called India “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, one which will be vital to US strategic interests in Asia-Pacific and across the globe”, India’s ties with Washington are its most important relationship.

Obama and his predecessors, Republican George Bush and fellow Democrat Bill Clinton all visited India, underscoring the increasing importance of the bilateral relationship that has broad bipartisan support across the aisle.

But despite the optics, there is cautious optimism on the outcome of the Modi visit which is expected to be primarily focused on economic ties, defence, trade and technology exchanges.

Trade between the two countries has grown from only $5.6 billion in 1990 to over $63 billion in 2013, according to the US Census Bureau.
And as a State Department backgrounder noted, the two are “developing their defence partnership through military sales and joint research, co-production and co-development efforts”.

“India has moved forward, albeit haltingly, with market-oriented economic reforms that began in 1991,” the backgrounder said noting, “Recent reforms have included an increasingly liberal foreign investment regime in many sectors.”

But nothing major is expected in regard to the landmark India-US nuclear deal that has stalled over India’s tough liability law.
Addressing the liability issue still remains “the biggest and most pressing issue on trying to advance the civil nuclear cooperation,” according to Nisha Desai Biswal, assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs.

As the 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain told a Washington think tank recently, “Too often, our relationship has felt like a laundry list of initiatives, some quite worthy, that amounts to no more than the sum of its parts.”

“… Our strategic relationship has unfortunately devolved recently into a transactional one,” he said.

But McCain, who met the Indian Prime Minister last month, also felt “Modi wants India to do its part to change this – and that he wants India and the US to lift our sights once again, to think bigger and do bigger things together.”

“I fully agree. And I see the prime minister’s visit to the US this month as an opportunity to renew our partnership and regain a proper strategic focus,” he said.

Mark R. Warner, Democratic co-chair of the bipartisan Senate India Caucus, who published a “First 100 Days” plan to strengthen US-India relations has also praised the progress made at the 100-day mark of Modi’s government.

Meanwhile, the Indian community is planning to accord Modi a grand public reception at Madison Square Garden, a huge multi-purpose indoor arena in Midtown Manhattan in New York City with a capacity of over 20,000 Sep 28.

The event will be emceed by the first Indian-American Miss America Nina Davuluri and PBS Weekend Newshour’s Indian-American anchor, Hari Sreenivasan.

Given “an overwhelming response for this historic event” and “the tremendous interest from the Indian American community” general admission tickets are being distributed through a lottery.

The event, organised by the Indian American Community Foundation, will be broadcast live on a number of TV channels as well as streamed online on pmvisit.org website.