After reaching out to neighbours immediately after the elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has wasted no time in setting up a date with U.S. President Barack Obama. The quick agreement between Delhi and Washington to schedule a summit at the White House during late September should quiet the sceptics in both countries about the future of the India-U.S. relations.
The United States, which Modi in the diplomatic doghouse for nearly a decade on charges that he did not do enough to control the Gujarat riots in 2002, has been eager to make political amends in the last few weeks. During the election campaign, Modi had said he bears no personal grudge against the United States and wants to build a solid partnership on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.
Some in Delhi were suggesting that Modi should signal his displeasure towards the United States by avoiding a trip to Washington. Instead they said, Modi could sit down with Obama on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, if the new Prime Minister chooses to travel to New York in September.
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In rejecting this advice, Modi has understood what many in the Indian strategic community do not. Having an active and productive engagement with the United States generates much diplomatic space for India in dealing with other major powers, including China, Russia, Europe and Japan, as well as expand India’s margin for manoeuvre in Asia and the Indian Ocean.
Although Modi’s predecessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recognised the centrality of the U.S. in India’s multi-directional engagement, the ideological ambivalence in the Congress party saw the UPA government slam the brakes just when the relationship with the U.S. was about to take off. In Washington, the Obama Administration lacked the kind of strategic vision for the partnership with India that President George W. Bush had outlined. With diminishing political commitment in both capitals, the relationship inevitably hit a plateau in the last few years.
In mid 2005, when Singh and Bush announced the plan to build a strategic partnership, it was merely an idea. The U.S. was strong and the unipolar moment was at its peak. India’s economy was booming and its ties with most powers were improving.
A decade later there is no denying that the U.S. is much weaker and India has stumbled. Delhi and Washington need each other a lot more today than they did in 2005. If that understanding percolates to the two bureaucracies, the September summit could be a consequential one for both the nations.
(The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for The Indian Express)