A much-needed reality check in the relations of the world's two most important democracies
It would be naive to reduce the Modi-Kerry meeting to a trade facilitation agreement (TFA) success/failure talk. The build-up to the meeting was as palpably significant in diplomatic posturing as the meeting itself.
Beginning with the now well-known July 28 speech, Kerry binged on a Modi moment. The come-back-all-is-forgiven stance set the stage for the then-impending US-India strategic dialogue. This was also an occasion when prime minister Modi, after being denied the US visa, would for the first time meet the highest official from the US Department of State.
The strategic dialogue is held every year alternately in India and the US. This year it was US’s turn to host the event. However, Kerry chose to come to India with his delegation mainly for three reasons.
First, the Kerry visit was primarily a testing-the-waters tool which would have happened irrespective of the World Trade Organization (WTO) bearing. Modi will be visiting US in September to attend the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Subsequently, he will be visiting Washington for a bilateral with Obama. This is in departure from usual convention wherein US presidents do not hold any bilateral meetings while UNGA is in session.
Modi’s image has played out both as an asset and a burden in the diplomatic arena. It is important to note that all matters of interest to India, be it the Nuclear Liability Bill, the snooping on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members by the US, the volatility in South Asia particularly Pakistan etc. were discussed only during the restricted talks and the delegation-level talks with the external affairs minister (EAM), Sushma Swaraj.
Kenneth Waltz’s first-image analysis argues that war is caused by the nature of a political leader and statesman. Kerry availed of the opportunity to gauge the ‘foe’, so to speak in case of diplomatic non-alignments. Obama could do without nasty surprises in his debut meeting with Modi given the troubled history between Modi and the US government. The US administration was particularly keen in understanding the Indian prime minister’s mind especially its geopolitical strategies vis-à-vis its near and far neighborhood.
Secondly, with India’s position of leadership in the developing world and Obama’s stated rebalance to Asia, the visit was an attempt for taking India on board for some of the larger issues where America finds itself in a tight situation, for instance, the TFA issue in WTO and clinching a deal with India on climate change before the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which will take place in Paris in December 2015. Additionally, Kerry who is Obama's pointman for the Middle East affairs was perhaps keen to get an assessment of India’s views of the current situation in the region.
Foreign policy has strong domestic imperatives. Modi’s mandate can be seen as an opportunity. On the flip side, however, this very mandate will make it difficult to override the interests of the domestic constituency. Modi remained firm regarding the TFA issue stating that though he does not want to throw a spanner in the works, America must understand that India has special concerns given its large number of people living below the poverty line and the government’s responsibility of providing food to this section at an affordable cost. The present recess at the WTO gives India and the other members the breathing space to deliberate a way around this impasse.
Modi’s emphasis on strengthening neighbourhood relations may have come as a bit of a surprise to most western powers. The neighbourhood which had been neglected by India thus far is assuming importance in the foreign policy dynamics of the new regime. Apart from the leaders of the neighbourhood coming for Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, the EAM has already visited Bangladesh and Nepal and held a joint ministerial commission with Nepal after 23 years. Modi’s first overseas trip was to Bhutan. His impending visit to Nepal is the first bilateral prime ministerial visit in the last 17 years. During this period, there have been nine prime ministerial visits from the Nepalese side. Modi has accepted Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to visit Pakistan. Communication between the foreign secretaries have resumed after 2012 and the foreign secretary of India is scheduled to visit Pakistan in end-August .
On a somewhat related note, the forward movement on the BRICS New Development Bank at the recently-concluded BRICS summit in Fortaleza has made the developed world sit up and take note. A more compact alliance of interests amongst the three large representatives of the developing world--Russia, India, China--can hardly be good news for the US.
Finally, given the state of the US economy, there is an urgent need to look for commercial opportunities, including markets, overseas. India with its huge middle class will be a strong presence on US’s radar. China has overtaken the US as India's biggest trading partner. India is the eleventh largest goods trading partner with US with $63.7 billion in total goods trade. The stated objective is to push up trade figures to $100 billion. During his recent visit, Kerry attempted to link the issue of American investments with the breaking down of trade barriers in India. He stated, “... we have a lot of work yet to do in breaking down barriers to trade and in encouraging the talent that we both have to be able to go to work. When ten million Indians enter the workforce each year, the Indian Government clearly understands this imperative.”
Indo-US relations which is in strong need for revival after a drift in the recent past should not be made hostage to the American global agenda. This would call for a diplomatic tight rope walk for India as it faces the potential danger of isolation at global fora. America, on the other hand, has to be more sympathetic to the needs of developing nations. Any illusion of a stroll-in-the-park in this relationship has perhaps been checked in wake of the Modi-Kerry meeting.