With his just concluded visit to Washington marked by expansive public diplomacy and substantive talks with US President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has begun to put an imprint of his own on India’s engagement with the US. Although Modi surprised the nation and the world with his flair for diplomacy, there was no doubt that the US posed a very special challenge for him. For nearly a decade, Washington publicly affirmed that Modi was not welcome in America by citing his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. The US decision to invite him to the White House by setting aside its presumed human rights concerns and extend a very warm welcome constituted more than a personal vindication for Modi. They reinforced his political belief, not widely shared in his own party or the national security establishment, that renewing the momentum in India’s relations with the US is one of the highest priorities for India’s foreign policy.
At the White House, Modi said that his talks with Obama have reinforced his conviction that “India and the United States are natural global partners based on our shared values, interests, and strengths.” While the rhetoric might sound trite, the fact is that no political formation in the country has been willing to own the relationship with the US that has steadily expanded since the end of the Cold War. The BJP, which sought a transformation of ties with the US under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, opposed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s attempts to advance the partnership with Washington. The Congress leadership, in turn, was never comfortable with the prospect of India drawing close to the US and held Singh back.
Although the agenda for India-US relations was set in the UPA years, Modi is poised to make a big difference. As the first leader in 30 years with a majority in the Lok Sabha, Modi’s unabashed enthusiasm for America marks a very different phase in Delhi’s post-Cold War engagement with Washington that was defined by apprehension and ambivalence in recent decades. Besides a strong and open commitment to the relationship, Modi brings a rare pragmatism in dealing with the many differences with the US on trade, climate change and civil nuclear liability. Modi’s eager pursuit of American investment in India is matched by his recognition of the unprecedented possibilities for geopolitical cooperation with the US in the subcontinent, East Asia, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean. At the same time, Modi appears deeply conscious of India’s own strengths and its inherent capacity to build an equitable relationship with Washington. The self-assurance that Modi has begun to inject into Delhi’s worldview promises to herald a future for India-US relations that is very different from the past.