To understand the strategic significance of the second summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama, it is necessary to look beyond the very important and tangible outcomes that the two leaders have unveiled.
Closing the file on the historic civil nuclear initiative, expanding defence cooperation, exploring common ground on climate change and intensifying the engagement on regional security cooperation could not have been possible without the refreshing new diplomatic culture of problem-solving under the Modi government. For years now, progress on these issues has been held up principally by the Indian reluctance to negotiate purposefully. By combining strong political will with a laser-like focus on practical solutions, Modi has altered the narrative on India’s relationship with America.
The Americans, by nature, like fixing problems when they find them. In India, it has been quite fashionable to accuse the US of being too transactional. The problem, however, is in the fact that Delhi had never been sufficiently transactional in the past. While this has been a generic problem with Indian diplomacy, Delhi’s preference for posturing had acquired an extra edge in dealings with America.
Over the decades, a perverse political culture, wrapped in vacuous rhetoric, enveloped Indian foreign policymaking and turned Delhi into an odd-ball in the international arena. India would rather negotiate against its own long-term interests than find common ground with others. Standing up to America was considered an overriding political virtue. Whether it was negotiating on trade, climate change or nuclear policy at the multilateral or bilateral level, defending inherited positions became the dominant foreign policy tradition. Saying “no” was considered more heroic than splitting the difference and making progress.
Part of the problem was the inability of the political classes to continually review and update the definition of India’s national interests by taking into account the changing domestic imperatives and external circumstances. This in turn filtered down to the bureaucracy, which revelled in being prickly with the US.
Even a cursory look at the Indian and Chinese approaches to America reveals the contrast between Beijing’s pragmatism and Delhi’s inflexibility. Beijing fought a costly war with America in the Korean Peninsula during 1950-53, a war which saw nearly half a million Chinese casualties, including both the dead and the wounded. Mao Zedong’s own son was killed in the war.
Yet, less than two decades later, Mao, in a breathtaking geopolitical manoeuvre, engineered a rapprochement with the US to counter the Soviet Union. India, which never had occasion to fight with the US, continued to tell itself that the contradictions with America were permanent and offered no room for practical cooperation. If Mao’s shift was a strategic one, Deng Xiaoping recast China’s foreign policy orientation in more fundamental ways and turned the partnership with America into a powerful lever to build China’s comprehensive national power. In recent years, mounting problems with America have not prevented China’s leaders from cutting deals with it on issues ranging from climate change to IT.
To be fair, India’s political leaders were quicker than its professional diplomats and strategic community to recognise the importance of a more productive relationship with the US. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi launched the first serious efforts to normalise relations with America in the 1980s. Faced with the end of the Cold War and recognising India’s new logic of globalisation, then Prime Minister P.V.
Narasimha Rao declared that the “sky is the limit” for cooperation with America. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee called America a “natural ally” of India and his successor, Manmohan Singh, signed the nuclear and defence agreements with Washington.
These frequent attempts at changing India’s relationship with America repeatedly ran into political opposition and bureaucratic resistance. Even when major historic opportunities presented themselves, as in the first two years of the UPA government, Delhi found it hard to implement the agreements that it had signed with Washington.
Three important shifts that Modi has forced on Delhi are at the root of the prime minister’s unexpected success with Obama. One, at the strategic level, Modi has concluded that a strong partnership with America was in India’s long-term interest. Two, Modi has sought an end to India’s tradition of reactive diplomacy and demanded that Delhi take the initiative. Unlike in the UPA era, when all the big ideas for transforming the relationship came from Washington, Modi demanded that Delhi take the lead in seeking a resolution of the outstanding issues and finding new areas of cooperation. Three, he demanded a flexible negotiating strategy that focuses on outcomes rather than the mindless defence of outdated positions. Once Obama found Modi could get things moving on the Indian side, it was not difficult for the two to deliver substantive understandings.
Modi’s transformation of India’s diplomatic culture is not just about warming up to the US. Delhi’s new clarity on India’s long-term interests and its vigorous pursuit of pragmatic solutions is bound to have an impact on how the NDA government deals with the rest of the world, both at the bilateral and the multilateral levels.
Modi’s engagement with China, for example, has already signalled a more creative approach towards Beijing. The Modi government has been far more open to economic cooperation with China than its predecessors. Contrary to the emerging misperception that the Obama visit is all about countering China, the prime minister is determined to generate new political opportunities with Beijing.
Much in the manner that Deng normalised relations with the Soviet Union and resolved the boundary dispute with Moscow after strengthening ties with Washington, Modi is in a good position to make a vigorous bid to resolve long-standing issues with Beijing. Like the Americans, the Chinese are masters of realpolitik. After Modi demonstrated the art of the deal with America, it will be worth watching the sequel when the prime minister heads to China in the not too distant future.
The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, is contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’