An Indian-American circus
IN September every year, leaders of 190-plus nations, big or small, get a chance to make speeches at the United Nations General Assembly, which is usually attended by nobody except their diplomats and journalists. Their “patriotic” media dutifully reports their speeches. The world ignores them. So does the UN!
Prime Minister Narendra Modi played out this charade when he spoke at a General Assembly hall which was two-thirds empty. He said nothing substantive. Yet the Indian media, in full attendance, spent hours analysing it.
The same was true of Mr. Modi's Madison Square Garden event, for which the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh mobilised 19,000 people, each of whom paid $5,000-$10,000. Most were non-resident Indians (NRI), who are culturally insecure and divided. They long for the country they have left behind and try to manufacture its images through arcane rituals and obscurantist practices, which resident Indians discarded long ago.
This was a real American-Indian circus, dominated by a rowdy crowd which chanted “Har har Modi” and assaulted a TV anchor for asking routine questions.
Underscoring his bilateral talks in Washington, Mr. Modi declared his visit “very successful and satisfactory.” He said President Obama's interaction with him -- he threw a dinner for him with 20 guests, and took him on a tour of the King Memorial -- gave the relationship a “new dimension.”
Much was also made of their joint editorial for The Washington Post. But there's nothing unique about this. Such joint articles are a standard practice even with leaders of smaller countries. In 2009, Manmohan Singh was given much more lavish treatment, including a dinner with 300 guests.
As The New York Times put it, Mr. Obama wanted to spotlight his “hopes for working with Mr. Modi while not lavishing the full measure of White House pageantry on a leader who until recently was barred from entering the US …”
The joint Modi-Obama “vision statement” is full of inanities such as working together “for the benefit of the world,” and “reducing the salience of nuclear weapons” -- when both states are building up or modernising their nuclear arsenals.
True, a number of India-US agreements were initialled: renewing a 10-year defence cooperation framework, promoting investment, development of “smart cities,” visa-on-arrival for US citizens beginning 2015, arms sales, cooperation in science and technology, and renewable energy.
But this happened in all recent visits of Indian prime ministers to the US. Such discrete agreements don't add up to a breakthrough. Besides, renewable energy isn't a forte of the US; its economy is addicted to fossil fuels and it's a laggard in green technologies.
Mr. Modi's visit failed to rekindle a closer, qualitatively new relationship with the US -- or as some wide-eyed admirers of America put it, “romance.” Two major thorny issues remain unaddressed: actualisation of the US-India nuclear deal through reactor imports, and India's position on trade-related and intellectual property rights (IPR) issues in World Trade Organisation negotiations.
Six years after the nuclear deal was finalised by the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers' Group, not one reactor contract has materialised with the US, France or Russia. This is partly because reactor manufacturers are loath to work under the Indian nuclear liability law, which extends liability to suppliers in certain cases while holding the operator primarily responsible for damages in case of accidents.
Yet it is hard to see how the Modi government can change the law, which is the result of an all-party consensus. Nor can US nuclear manufacturers, who depend on a Japanese company for a critical component of all large reactors, make do without Japan's signature of an agreement similar to the US-India deal. This hasn't materialised.
To indicate its “flexibility” on IPRs just before Mr. Modi's visit, the Indian government suddenly reduced the range of drugs subjected to price control by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, including widely prescribed medicines for diabetes, cancer, tuberculosis, cardiac disease and HIV-AIDS.
This move was clearly meant to favour US corporations and prepare the way for a change in India's IPR regime. It will raise the prices of these essential medicines and harm the interests of millions of Indians. But deplorable as this is, it's unlikely to satisfy the US which wants comprehensive concessions from India on a gamut of trade-related issues, including artificially freezing the prices of food procured for India's public distribution system at their level in the mid-1980s.
The US was keen on roping India into its so-called war on the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant (IS), an organisation for whose birth the West bears some responsibility. India did not join the 70-nation coalition. This isn't an act of wisdom, but reflects unrefined pragmatism: it's easy to see that IS won't be destroyed by aerial strikes alone.
Where Washington has succeeded is in getting India closer to a “China containment” strategy. Thus the India-US joint statement specifically mentions the situation in the South China Sea, and expresses concern over the “rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes,” obviously referring to Chinese territorial claims.
This is the first time that India has taken a position so close to that of the US. This does not bode well for the future.
There is of course much talk of closer Indo-US cooperation against terrorism and cutting off financial and tactical support to al-Qaeda, IS, the Haqqani network and Dawood Ibrahim. But nobody should have illusions that the US will help India cope with the specific terrorist threats it faces -- even as it extracts an Indian commitment to help fight the terrorism that menaces the US.
The US is not known for equal or symmetrical relationships even with its own allies. There is only one finger on the gun that Nato wields, and that is American.
The primary purpose of Mr. Modi's foreign policy hyper-activism, of which his US visit is part, may have more to do with winning personal legitimation from the West than with substance.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist. E-mail: [email protected]