In a country that played host to the charismatic Pope Francis, and the powerful Chinese President Xi Jinping among 150 other world leaders, it was difficult for anyone else to be heard this week.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s U.S diary did not do badly. His diary had no blank pages. With a stress on optics rather than “specific outcomes”, the hectic six-day visit to the United States included a number of engagements at the United Nations, and a short but signficant weekend in Silicon Valley on the West Coast.
So much so that Modi’s meetings were the envy of the Pakistani media, which criticized Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for closeting himself in the Waldorf-Astoria with old friends from Pakistan instead of seeing and been seen.
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The much talked about possibility of a Modi-Sharif meeting did not materialize. At a summit of countries that contribute to UN peacekeeping, Modi’s last engagement before he flew out, Sharif waved to the Indian Prime Minister, and he waved back.
Prime Minister Modi held meetings with the Who’s who of America’s big capital, business and industry, seeking to allay their concerns on the slow pace of deregulation and India’s poor “ease of doing business” climate. On the West Coast, he and the tech biggies wooed each other assiduously.
In his bilateral meetings with a galaxy of world leaders, he pushed India’s case for the expansion of the permanent seats in the Security Council, and for a global convention on combating terror.
He hosted a summit of the G-4, the group of four countries – India, Brazil, Germany, Japan – to discuss how to fast-forward the expansion of the Security Council in this 70th anniversary of the United Nations.
In his speech at the UN Summit for Sustainable Development, Modi pitched India’s position on climate change strongly, which he also managed to do with President Obma.
Plus Modi did what he likes best – projecting political power abroad through outreach to a largely supportive audience of non-resident Indians, a useful way to send a message of his popularity back home, as well as inform the host country of his clout on its territory. The West Coast, which brings together the best of American innovation and Indian tech expertise, dovetailed well with Modi’s Digital India slogan.
The Prime Minister’s visit reinforced the optimism that after the hiatus in the last three years of the Manmohan Singh government, India-U.S ties are finally progressing in the right direction, though many gaps remain, particularly on economic relations.
The Strategic and Commercial Dialogue, at which Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Nirmal Sitharaman led the Indian delegation last week, revealed that the convergence on strategic issues was not matched in trade relations between the two countries.
The point was underlined by the US Commerce secretary Penny Pritzker, who asked for a “laser-like focus” on the common goal of a five-fold increase in the trade. India is only the 10th largest trading for the US, and the 18th biggest market for US exports.
The US wants more market access, and less red tape. Modi wants more U.S money in India, more Make in India, more jobs in India. The $2.5 billion contract for Chinooks and Apaches that India cleared in time for the Modi visit after several years of the deal being in the works underlined both the challenges and the prospects for US business.
In retrospect, the visit, with its positive atmospherics and feel good slogans such as Technology, Innovation and Enterprise may have been the easier part. After two trips to the U.S, Washington, and meetings with the moghuls of finance, business and industry, Modi will now be judged by his government’s actions on the economic agenda.
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On climate change, the U.S wants India, which is seen as crucial to any agreement at the upcoming CoP21 in Paris, to act decisively on capping emissions. India’s case, as a developing country that needs its manufacturing industry in order to pull its people out of poverty, and considers more important reducing dependence on fossil fuels, still has few takers. After the meeting with Obama, India announced it would be submitting its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions on Gandhi Jayanthi, October 2, seeking to give a moral sheen to a long-delayed submission. Modi’s speech at the UN Summit on the post-2015 goals for Sustainable development made this point too. But the pressure is undoubtedly on India.
The joint statement on terrorism cornering Pakistan on the groups that operate out of its territory issued at the end of the Commerical and Strategic Dialogue was much to India’s satisfaction, but it may still be a while before India can convince the U.S on the desirability of a UN convention against combating terror, which controversially seeks to define terrorism.
Even more ambitious is the G 4 pitch for permanent seats in an expanded Security Council. The G4 have said they want the reforms to take place in this year itself. “Historic” was a word used often to describe the summit that Modi hosted, and to listen to Indian officials, UN reform is around the corner, but it is not going to be easy at all. Of the P5, China does not want Japan in the Permanent club, and on behalf of Pakistan, would oppose India’s bid, Britain and France would be wary of Germany, and the South American countries challenge Brazil’s case. From the way Modi canvassed with countries big and small for their support on UN reforms, he clearly plans for this to be his big achievement for India’s projection abroad.