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Why America is betting on Modi

Author: Sadanand Dhume
Publication: The Times of India
Date: January 27, 2015
URL: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/toi-edit-page/why-america-is-betting-on-modi/

Barely a year ago, most foreign policy pundits would likely have agreed on one simple prediction: the election of Narendra Modi as Indian prime minister would set back relations with the United States, and by extension with the West more broadly.

Instead, the opposite has happened. Yesterday President Barack Obama shattered a symbolic taboo by becoming the first American chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day parade. Arguably, the US and India are poised to pursue a deeper and wider partnership – one whose impact will potentially be felt far beyond the two countries’ borders – than at any time before.

To be sure, the detailed mechanics of stepped up cooperation between the US and India outlined in Sunday’s joint statement and joint strategic vision for Asia and the Indian Ocean region need to be fleshed out in the months ahead.

The prudent will hold the champagne until both countries actually begin co-producing weapons, US companies break ground on new Indian nuclear reactors, and we see tangible gains against the likes of Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and D Company. But one thing is clear: the US and India don’t lack ambition for the relationship.

Why is America betting on Modi, a man whose visa it rejected a decade ago in a public rebuke for the 2002 Gujarat riots that occurred on his watch? In a nutshell, Washington’s posture reflects a blend of hard-nosed calculation and a genuine reassessment of the Indian prime minister.

To begin with, the alleged Modi-Obama personal chemistry ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. The bookish former law professor and the fiery former RSS pracharak hardly make the most natural friends. If anything, their apparent willingness to forge a personal bond says more about their pressing national interests.

Shared concerns about China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia and the destabilising impact of radical Islamist terrorism drive the US and India towards each other. Thanks to India’s size, democratic polity, pluralistic society and vast economic potential, Washington has placed a long-term bet on the idea that the rise of India is good for America.

But the success of this bet depends on India fulfilling its own ambition to claim a seat at the high table of global power. Simply put, Modi’s sweeping electoral mandate gives him a better shot at achieving India’s goals than any of his recent predecessors.

To be sure, Modi’s own record has helped generate these hopes. In policy circles, his reputation for no-nonsense administration and business-friendly economic policies earned in Gujarat has eclipsed misgiving generated by the 2002 riots. That Modi stressed development – not identity politics – in his campaign last year helped complete a public makeover years in the making. To the prime minister’s credit, he has remained tightly on message even after winning the election.

That Modi chose to take the high road towards the US also helped. Hardliners in BJP, and in the larger ideological family to which it belongs, would have applauded had the prime minister chosen to snub the US by downplaying ties with it, at least early on in his tenure.

Instead Modi accepted Obama’s invitation to visit Washington with alacrity. This signalled two reassuring qualities: that the prime minister is not a man to put personal peeves ahead of the national interest and that he sees the US as a vital partner in fulfilling his ambitious vision for India.

At the margins, Modi’s passionate following among Indian-Americans also helped boost his reputation in Washington. It didn’t hurt that over the years Indian-Americans have been among Obama’s fiercest supporters. A higher proportion voted for him than in most ethnic groups. When Modi filled New York’s Madison Square Garden with his fans last year, it brought him the kind of domestic political attention foreign leaders rarely enjoy in America.

Of course, just because the stars appear to have aligned at the moment for Obama and Modi does not necessarily mean that they will remain permanently aligned. At its core, the US bet on Modi is that he will revive India’s economy, deepen its engagement with fellow democracies, and steer clear of domestic strife. Beyond that, sceptics will also look for evidence of concrete progress in the many areas of cooperation suggested during Obama’s visit.

How will the US and India advance a rules-based international order in the Indian Ocean? How do shared concerns about Islamic State in Iraq and Syria translate into counterterrorism cooperation? When it comes to climate change, have the US and India really drawn closer than before?

Nonetheless, there’s no question that Modi has forced India back on Obama’s foreign policy agenda. He has raised expectations that he is a new kind of Indian leader – unafraid to break some geopolitical crockery while pursuing his goals. If Modi continues to reform the economy and revitalise Indian diplomacy, his honeymoon with Washington will only lengthen. The consequences for India, Asia and the world could be huge.
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