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Modi’s U.S. Visit Highlights Need to Energize Indo-U.S. Relations to Tackle Big Issues

September 24, 2014

By Sagar Prasai

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will begin his highly anticipated U.S. visit later this week. While the first-half of the visit revolves around UN events, it is the second-half that involves meetings with President Obama, the India Caucus in U.S. Congress, and a select group of celebrity CEOs that has grabbed much of the attention in India.

Modi visits the U.S.

This week, India’s PM Narendra Modi embarks on a 100-hour visit to the U.S. While conversations in India are focused on how his annual nine-day fast to mark the Hindu festival of Navaratri will affect the state ceremonies, foreign policy conversations are zeroing in on geopolitics and economy. Photo/Flickr user Narendra Modi http://bit.ly/1pdw2CA

Currently the media here are fixated on how his annual nine-day fast to mark the Hindu festival of Navaratri will affect the state ceremonies, which may change as the visit progresses. But in the more somber corners of New Delhi’s foreign policy think tanks, conversations are zeroing in on geopolitics and economy. Even there, the focus appears to be on Modi-Obama chemistry rather than on substance – after all, this is a much-awaited makeup trip after Indo-U.S. relations went sour early this year over fairly mundane and avoidable issues.

Modi’s entourage has been described as “thin” and not many commentators here have been willing to pin-point in public what exactly he intends to take up in the more crucial of the meetings. Depending on who you talk to, most everything seems to be in need of urgent attention, from how to overcome the recent chill in Indo-U.S. relations, China’s ever-growing defense capabilities, and the Indo-Chinese resource-rivalry in Africa, to the state of Indo-Japanese strategic alliance, BRICS, transition in Afghanistan, India’s relationship with Iran, the Iraq-Syria crisis, U.S. investments in India, and reforming India’s intellectual property regime. The problem is that Indo-U.S. relations will require a lot of maintenance and oiling before it can be revved up to tackle all these issues; Modi appears to be doing his part by maintaining a schedule of over four dozen engagements in a 100-hour visit.

An issue that may or may not surface in this visit is that of India’s role in the region. It is difficult to imagine that India’s claim on the high seat of global politics will be recognized by the rest of the world without India being able to take care of the problems in its own backyard effectively. India’s ability to take its low-growth neighbors such as Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar in its economic stride, maintain strategically steady relationships with Pakistan and China, and become a more effective a player in Afghanistan’s transition is yet to be proven.

India’s geo-political centrality, economic power, market size, and military dominance in South Asia are unquestionable, but its regional influence remains lacking in commensurate strength. South Asia is the world’s least integrated regional bloc, with India remaining unable or unwilling to change the status quo. Even on marginal issues of cooperation on water or trade with its immediate neighbors, India still prefers a bilateral rather than a multilateral framework of negotiation, where it seeks pound per pound equity in all its deals with its much weaker neighbors. From the outside, it appears as if India is unaware of its own political and economic power and is trying hard to be equal with its neighbors.

It is difficult to negotiate your way to the global seat of power, one country at a time, on the strength of bilateral relations alone. It is equally difficult to make a compelling case for global leadership if your ability to manage regional relations is not fully trusted by other global powers. Prime Minister Modi probably understands this better than most of his predecessors and is willing to try something different in South Asia as well with the rest of the world. While no one expects Modi’s 100 hours on U.S. soil to completely change Indo-U.S. relations, his attempts to bring India out of the parochial tangles and into the global arena need to be recognized and supported.

Sagar Prasai is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in India. He can be reached at sagar.prasai@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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