The fifth round of the India-US strategic dialogue led by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and US Secretary of State John F. Kerry, taking place in Delhi this week, should set the stage for a productive visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington at the end of September. The visit is not just about restoring the lost dynamism in the engagement between Delhi and Washington under UPA 2. The outcomes from Modi’s Washington sojourn are likely to shape the contours of India’s global role at a time when renewed great power tensions are undermining international peace and breaking down the old order in Europe and Asia.
Modi appears to have understood that the relationship with the US is too important to be left to the mercies of the conservative foreign office or his party cadre, which views diplomacy as another form of emotion. No wonder the PM rejected the calls to shun Washington until there was a formal apology from the US on the visa denial to Modi since 2005. Modi has made it clear that he has no personal grouse against Washington and that he will deal with the US on the basis of national interest. Seen from the perspective of Modi’s campaign for prime ministership, the US is the Uttar Pradesh of international politics. If you get the world’s biggest power right, your pursuit of larger political goals becomes that much easier. Modi has understood that the expansion of India’s engagement with the US will significantly improve its room for manoeuvre with Pakistan, China, Europe, Japan and Russia.
Modi is not proclaiming some new principle, but merely emulating Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who successfully cut through India’s international isolation after the 1998 nuclear tests by pushing for a strategic partnership with the US. The UPA government forgot this principle and started deliberately distancing itself from Washington in the name of non-alignment. Modi need not align his government with the US against other powers. But like Vajpayee, he must engage all the major powers, each on its own merit, and make cooperation with them an integral part of India’s national development strategy. Perhaps “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” — coined by Modi to define his domestic political agenda and endorsed most recently by Kerry — applies to India’s foreign policy as well. In Delhi, Modi has taken charge of the US relationship. If Washington matches his commitment to revitalise the partnership, Modi’s encounter with Barack Obama in September could turn out to be rather consequential.