INDIAN PRIME MINISTER MODI’S U.S. VISIT: TOWARD A MORE BALANCED AGENDA
By Richard M. Rossow
01 Oct 14. On September 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India concluded his first visit to the United States since his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won a majority in the lower house of India’s Parliament in the spring 2014 election. While the ostensible reason for the visit was to speak at the UN General Assembly, that speech was his least important engagement in the United States.
On many counts this was a very successful visit. The two sides reiterated past commitments and found new areas for cooperation. Mr. Modi reached out to various interest groups here in the United States in unprecedented ways. But at the same time, some of the issues that have divided our two nations in recent years remain unresolved. Overall, the revised agenda appears well balanced, with fewer “joint” initiatives that are really just thinly disguised unilateral interests. This approach should facilitate follow-through on both sides.
Four Key Highlights from the Visit
* Engagement beyond our Borders: The Joint Statement highlights a new willingness to work collaboratively on a wider set of global issues than was attempted in the past. References to North Korea’s nuclear program, instability in Iraq and Syria, and the security of the South China Sea highlight a widening of the aperture of engagement.
* United States to Support Modi’s Economic Goals: The U.S. government showed an important understanding of Modi’s goals and a willingness to engage on his priority issues. The United States proposed the launch of important bilateral programs on infrastructure development and manufacturing competitiveness.
* Modi Engages the American Public: Mr. Modi made an interesting attempt to engage the American public directly through his speech to 60,000 attendees at the Global Citizens Festival in New York City’s Central Park. Introduced by actor Hugh Jackman, he delivered his only English-language speech during the visit, concluding his remarks with “May the force be with you.” Modi’s messages of empowering women and improving sanitation were aligned with the group’s goals.
* No Longer Need “Proxies” to Engage Business: Previous prime ministers had a distant relationship with foreign business leaders, which forced the construction of “proxy engagements” on business issues. However, Modi showed a new willingness to engage business leaders directly—just as when he was chief minister of Gujarat. He hosted a roundtable with key Indian-American executives, a breakfast with other American CEOs, a series of one-on-one meetings with CEOs, and delivered a speech to the U.S.-India Business Council just before departing the United States.
U.S. Relations with Modi
When looking at the United States’ relationship with Modi, most attention is paid to the U.S. government’s 2005 revocation of his visa over lingering questions about his role in the state of Gujarat’s religious riots in 2002. Prime Minister Modi served as chief minister of that state from 2001 until 2014. Since the riots, the United States avoided senior-level government engagement with Modi until former U.S. ambassador Nancy Powell met him in February 2014.
However, the government relationship is only one dimension of the U.S. relationship with the prime minister. U.S. business leaders regularly visited Gujarat and met with Modi, most notably at the biannual “Vibrant Gujarat” summits. The Indian-American diaspora, as well, was able to engage with him and strongly supported the BJP’s election campaign. So the overall U.S. relationship with Modi was far less constrained than is sometimes portrayed.
Still, there was widespread expectation that Prime Minister Modi would want to slow-walk relations with the United States following his electoral victory. For a leader without national-level leadership experience, Modi has shown a deft hand at foreign policy. He is quite pragmatic and clear