Hindu Vivek Kendra
«« Back

And Modi Said, I Want America

Author: Pranab Dhal Samanta
Publication: India Today
Date: October 9, 2014
URL: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/narendra-modi-america-barack-obama-modis-us-visit/1/394981.html

Narendra Modi is betting on closer ties with Washington

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, usually a quiet, attentive listener at official briefings, made a rare intervention when a retinue of foreign ministry officers explained at length their suggestion of a policy of equidistance with US, Japan and China. Modi, insiders said, felt that such a policy, desirable as it may be, was unlikely to sustain in the long run. His observation was that contradictions will surface soon enough, making it difficult to manage the balance beyond a point.

This was before Modi's visit to Japan last month, which marked the beginning of a string of high-powered diplomatic engagements. While this thought was never fleshed out, Modi's visit to the United States seemed to show his preferences. Beyond the sound, optics and bluster, it was in the details that the Modi Government signalled its willingness to meet Washington halfway and, if required, go even further to build the sort of relationship the UPA dithered on, despite the historic nuclear deal.

Modi, it's learnt, made it clear quite early in the preparations that India cannot be seen as a "no" country which opposes every US move on the global platform. This message came across even in an issue as simple as authoring a joint op-ed article with US President Barack Obama in the Washington Post.

As it turns out, the initial plan was to follow standard practice and get an article by the PM printed in a reputed US daily. This was written out and cleared for publication until the US side improvised and came up with the idea of a joint article with Obama. While the Indian mission in the US and a few other officers supported the suggestion, insiders said, senior South Block officials, including some in the PMO, were uncomfortable, raising questions about "equidistance" and the fallout of a "pro-West perception".

The matter eventually reached Modi's table. Insiders said he took "less than a minute" to give his go-ahead and the article was on. All that remained thereafter was to organise an acceptable editorial merger.


About a year ago, the UPA government's influential Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia came under fire both from the Congress and members of the Cabinet for endorsing a G-20 communique to discuss the phasing out of refrigerants or hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Montreal Protocol. He was almost charged with giving in to a Western agenda to deny developing countries the technologies necessary for growth. His critics dragged even then PM Manmohan Singh into the controversy because Ahluwalia had doubled as Singh's right-hand man at the G-20 meet.

It snowballed into a major issue with the environment ministry and, to some extent, even the foreign ministry digging their heels in, arguing that it compromised India's larger position on climate change. As a result, when Singh travelled to the US last year, he invested considerable political capital to buy more time by setting up a bilateral conversation to examine different approaches guiding this sensitive issue, which has a long-term bearing on developing countries such as India.

Modi was different. Even now, the environment ministry took a strong line against the Montreal Protocol, not to mention discussing the issue of phasing out HFCs under that framework. The ministry even argued that China was on the same page and the two could be a formidable combine on the international stage, without realising that Beijing is known to cut last-minute bilateral deals. The PM, sources said, simply overruled the suggestion, saying India could not take such rigid positions on issues of global importance.

As a result, India endorsed the sanctity of institutions under the Montreal Protocol in the India-US joint statement and agreed to initiate steps to hold discussions on the phasing out of HFCs. The first move will be to hold an urgent bilateral conversation, before the next meeting of the Montreal Protocol, on "safety, cost and commercial access to new technologies to replace HFCs". In a single stroke, Modi addressed a major US concern, one which his predecessor had to backtrack on because of domestic political pressure.

Similarly, on a politically more sensitive issue like farm subsidies and the agriculture debate in the World Trade Organisation, Modi was far more accommodating, especially when seen in the context of what the commerce ministry had moved. The ministry, insiders said, wanted to make a pitch for a far-reaching exemption that would cover not just existing programmes but also new schemes in the near future. In the longer term, it wanted to rework the entire framework of agriculture subsidies. It would have meant reopening all previous agreements, which amounted to no less a task than the unravelling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

This was a non-starter but, more importantly, placing such a proposal on the table would have sent a different message to the US. The PM did not want to make matters worse and decided against the idea of getting into specifics. Instead, he gave the issue a positive spin by openly endorsing the trade facilitation agreement while pushing for a more open bilateral conversation on WTO and agriculture.

In short, his message down the line was clear: India should not appear isolated on such issues and, therefore, the joint statement must also reflect this intent to work together, which also explained the commitment to resolve liability issues blocking civil nuclear energy contracts.


Technology for warships was one of the biggest takeaways of the US visit, a major strategic understanding that was not made public, well-concealed by the forward-looking utterances on defence cooperation. Sources told INDIA TODAY that talks are on for the US to provide certain state-of-the-art technologies like an aircraft-launching system to be installed in an aircraft carrier India is developing on its own. Shipbuilding, in fact, is one area where US defence technology assistance is expected to increase substantively as part of an overall effort to turn India into a maritime power with formidable capabilities, a matter of strategic priority and convergence for both countries.

Modi was clear in pushing forward the defence agenda, asking even Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to partner Indian companies and set up factories in India. But with the US, Modi signalled positive intent by first agreeing to one of Washington's long-standing demands, expanding and upgrading the bilateral Malabar exercises.

For long, the US had wanted to involve more countries in these exercises to improve their scope and make them truly multilateral. Previous defence minister A.K. Antony, however, was dead against it, impressing the then Cabinet Committee on Security that India should not undertake any military activity that remotely appeared like an alliance against China. Modi had no such second thoughts on the decision, which the US now hopes will be followed by finalising some key pacts such as the LSA (Logistics Support Agreement) and the CISMOA (Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement), which would make it viable to conduct joint exercises more frequently while also creating an interoperable environment.

The UPA government did not want to sign these agreements due to fears that it might push India into a close embrace with the US. The call Modi takes on these agreements will determine to quite an extent his government's long-term strategic inclination.

For the moment, insiders said, Modi's opening gambit carried enough intent to elicit favourable responses from Washington. Despite a range of concerns over issues like retrospective taxation on which the Modi government has stopped short of providing total comfort, American businesses responded positively, and even the US government was supportive, associating itself with almost every important Modi initiative, from smart cities to Swachh Bharat.

But the strategic overtones of the business relationship came through when BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink assured at least $6 billion investment from a global investors' conference he proposes to host in India next February. At that point, sources said, the PM's eyes lit up and he promised to attend the event himself. It may be noted that BlackRock has held such events with considerable success for key US strategic allies such as Canada and Mexico.

While it may be early in the day to predict alignments, it's clear after a month of hectic power play on the global stage that for Modi, the US is crucial to his plans. And on that score, he has made a strong opening bid, perhaps the most favourable to the US by any Indian PM on his very first outing.

Follow the writer on Twitter @pranabsamanta
«« Back
  Search Articles
  Special Annoucements