Prime Minister Modi’s visit to US – Hype or Substance?


After all the hype surrounding the visit of Prime Minister Modi to the US, it is time to do a more sedate analysis of the trip and its actuals as well as symbolism at this time. I am no political expert, so my views are more from the analysis of the received wisdom from other sources including media, analysis from experts as well as self analysis of speeches and the general trend.

Let me start with the background of the trip. Here’s a person who is banned from entering the United States as he was deemed to be responsible for severe violations of religious freedom. What was funny was this was a list of one which had only Narendra Modi in the list. The countries where other religions have been completely exterminated, dictators and religious fanatics who have killed off the other religions don’t figure in it. It is just literally one person and did not actually have to do with America’s concern for any religious group, but to justify a law’s existence. (Check out this interesting article why Modi was in this list: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303380004579520041301275638?mg=reno64-wsj). To top this personal angle, the relationship between India had been on a downward spiral after the signing of the Nuclear deal which seemed to culminate in the Khobragade’s incident and India’s veto at the WTO. Given this background, the two realistic goals of this trip was stop the negativity in the relationship and to correct the image of the Indian leader in the mind of the US public. Anything on top of that would have been a bonus.

The first very interesting thing was the itinerary of Prime Minister Modi. It started with a speech at UNGA, followed by engagements in New York leading to the final set of engagements in Washington. The itinerary, the choice of venues/events and the set of people that Modi met was brilliantly planned and orchestrated by his advisers. The speech at UNGA was mainly to announce to the larger world that Modi had arrived here as a world leader. By talking about the growth of democracy the world over with examples both within our neighborhood as well as countries in Africa depicted that he as a leader was not here to talk about India’s woes but to talk about how India is viewing the growth of democracy and how India wants to facilitate it. The apt response to Pakistan was even more brilliant, brushing aside the Pakistani claims as not appropriate for this forum was a statement to the world that India does not want interference in its bilateral relationship. In the backdrop of Team Modi’s engagement with all the immediate neighbors as well as China with whom India has bilateral issues, the simple statement clearly articulated India’s stand to the world. The speech was subtle and sophisticated in many levels, it also hit all the right tones that America wants to hear from India, support for democracy, ready for bigger role, stand against terrorism, ready to do business, thus hanging out a proverbial carrot to America. While doing all this, he also subtly raised the need for a direct role of India in the security council.

UNGA was an obvious decision, but the choice of next two engagements was very interesting. A speech at Central Park where Modi engaged directly with the American citizens in an informal setting to show his ability to connect with strangers and youth of a different country. The shrewd use of “May the force be with you” ensured coverage of his visit by the unwitting American media as the humor hosts picked up this line and suddenly Modi was a discussion point in America. The media in America will soon learn about this man’s ability to use media without paying them!! Move on to Madison Square Garden and the showcase of the Indian American community. The venue ensured the hype and the grandeur of the occasion was established, the parading of American senators at the start of the show ensured that there was credence to the show. And a rock-star performance which rocked MSG and showed of Modi’s support suddenly opened America’s eyes to the fact that this was not the guy they were making out for all these years when he was being portrayed as an Hindu Nationalist who hates Muslims. Suddenly they saw the genuine connect of the man with the masses and adoration that he has of his peoples including different sections. His conversational tone with his audience connecting with Parsis, Hindus, Muslims and all others in the crowd gave a bigger message to the American public and media than anything else that could be achieved through paid lobbying that has been done over the ages. One interesting aspect of this speech was the announcement of easing of Visa norms something which is generally done after discussions at diplomatic level. This masterstroke killed two birds with one stone, first it showed that he has the power to make decisions and he will make it to simplify norms and secondly, he showed that when it came to important matters he will take the initiatives irrespective of the other side. But, the most significant aspect of this was to showcase to America the whose who of Indian diaspora in America and how they could positively affect the relationship of the two countries and that here is one leader whom this community believes in.

Finally, he arrived in Washington, already having elevated the inquisitiveness of the American diplomats to a fever pitch. Even, before the trip commenced, he had stoked a lot of interest and inquisitiveness, by focusing on his neighborhood and ignoring America’s invite till he met them. By doing so, they made two clear statements to America, one that we can take care of our backyard without intervention, second our policy of Look East still is a potent one. Before the big meet with Obama, Modi again decided to meet with US businessmen over breakfast and get their views and talk to them about the India story. It was only after he had ticked all the boxes he went on to meet President Obama. That the two gifted orators enjoyed good bonhomie was no surprise and the two would have also exchanged notes on remarkably similarly run election campaigns focusing on social media. What in my opinion was incredible was that in the joint statement that followed, America for the first time made a specific reference to the terror outfits which India is going after. More significantly, the places where India differs like WTO etc. did not make an adverse appearance rather it was a generic statement on how we can continue to work better together.

Apart from the things that were said were the things that were not said during the trip. Modi showed himself as a statesman by not bringing up the Visa issue, he distinguished himself by not getting himself to get diverted by the K-bogey raised by Pakistan. Finally, sticking points such as WTO, Nuclear Treaty and Diplomatic rows were pushed lower in the pedestal for the lower echelons of both the countries diplomats to work out. Instead the leaders focused on setting up an agenda and a road-map for long term collaboration, stand against terror and increasing the business ties.

Given the initial agenda, the trip thus ended as a massive success in my opinion. Of course, diplomacy, speeches and words of comfort only go so far in the scheme of other things. Now it is time for action and it is in this stage that some of the more prickly details will start to emerge. But to quote a few lines from the Wheel of Time series “A wind rose in the Mountains of Mist. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings or endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.

So I hope this visit of Prime Minister Modi is a new beginning in Indo-US relationships.

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