In his government’s first high-level political contact with the Obama administration, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has signalled both pragmatism and firmness in his efforts to reboot India’s relations with the United States. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, was in Delhi last week to convey Washington’s enthusiasm for engaging the new Indian government, reviewing bilateral relations and preparing the ground for Modi’s visit to the US in September. He was accompanied by US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. In seeking a rapid and decisive advancement of relations with the US, Modi was distancing himself from the conservatives in his own party and government, who remain suspicious of America, and ending Delhi’s incoherence under the UPA government, which presided over the downslide in India-US relations over the last few years.
That Modi, the one leader who had a personal bone to pick with Washington over the decade-long visa denial, has become the champion of advancing ties with the US highlights the fact that the PM has taken a strong political, rather than personal, view of the relationship. While recognising the centrality of the US in any Indian foreign policy strategy in the current global context, Modi is not going to merely comply with any and all demands put forward by that country. Through his visit, Kerry pressed Modi not to veto a global deal on trade facilitation, which was to come into force when the US team was in town. Holding his ground, Modi underlined Delhi’s readiness to review its decision on the new trade facilitation agreement if India’s concerns on food security were addressed. Put simply, Modi is open for a deal.
Although India’s brinkmanship at the World Trade Organisation has dented Modi’s image in America as a bold reformer, the PM is determined to transform India’s bilateral economic relationship with the US. India’s ties with America tend to be more wide-ranging than with any other nation and cover contentious domestic, bilateral, regional and international issues. Modi, however, appears to have grasped that the business of engaging America is largely about business. By strengthening commercial, industrial and technological partnerships with the US, Modi is betting that he will secure India’s sustained economic growth and an enduring political relationship with America. With US President Barack Obama too focused on domestic issues, fleshing out a framework for promoting mutual prosperity should be at the top of Modi’s agenda for the US visit.