Author : Harsh V. Pant

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 01, 2019
Modi’s American outreach

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the US has predictably generated lots of commentary about the pros and cons of his external engagement. While his supporters have portrayed this visit as a grand victory for India and the Prime Minister, critics have harped on lack of any substantive outcome from the visit. But what is indisputable is the fact that Modi played on front foot throughout his visit and presented India’s case to the world with aplomb. Modi has shed India’s traditional defensiveness in its foreign policy and during his US visit too he was not shy of articulating the aspirations of his countrymen and women.

Modi had four different roles to perform during his US visit. First of all, he had to reduce tensions with the US, especially on trade. The US President Donald Trump had been targeting India on trade issues for quite some time and it was important for Indian Prime Minister to convey to Washington that New Delhi is ready to engage with the US substantively in a spirit of give and take. Indian officials and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal in particular have been engaged with their American counterparts over the last few weeks in an attempt to reset the trade dynamic between the two nations. Modi himself wooed Trump unabashedly during his rally in Houston where Trump was keen to project himself as a great friend of India and Indian Americans. But lest there be any doubt the terms of this wooing were set by Modi. Though the much anticipated trade deal could not be finalised during Modi’s visit, primarily because of the failure of the two sides to reach an agreement on Information and communications technology (ICT) products, these interactions have generated a level of confidence in Washington that India serious about engaging the US on trade. Trump’s assertions that a trade deal with India is in the offing underscore this new comfort level between the two nations.

Second, Modi had to sell India as a trade and investment destination to American and global investors at a time when there are growing concerns about economic slowdown in India. Modi reached out to the American corporate sector during a roundtable with CEOs of energy companies in Houston, and the Bloomberg Global Business Forum and another roundtable with CEOs of 40 leading companies such as Mastercard, Visa and Walmart in New York where he underlined the attractiveness of India, even offering personal intervention to address any issues that affected investors. Modi showcased democracy, demography, demand and decisiveness as key attributes of India’s growth story which can be harnessed by global investors to their advantage. Modi remains India’s finest brand ambassador and his selling of India is much required at a time when many have begun to question India’s economic story.

Third, Modi had to re-emphasise India’s global leadership credentials for the international community. His address to the United Nations General Assembly was remarkable for the way it linked India’s transformational changes to the wider expectations the world increasingly has from New Delhi. His was a crisp and subtle articulation of India as a global player and the need for the multilateral order to make space for India’s rise. Internationalism, Modi argued, is inherent to Indian civilisational ethos, not merely a stratagem of India to employ its power attributes. He ignored Pakistan even as he rallied the international community to fight terrorism. More significantly, he challenged Trump’s assertions about the end of multilateralism directly by making it clear that New Delhi views multilateralism as essential to maintaining the global order. He targeted the growing protectionism in the world by suggesting that we do not “have the option to confine ourselves within our boundaries.”

Finally, Modi had to present to the world India’s narrative on Kashmir against the backdrop of the abrogation of Article 370 and a sustained misinformation campaign launched by Pakistan. He used the Houston rally to great effect when in the presence of Trump he underlined the need for New Delhi’s change of policy on Kashmir as well as underscored how India has managed to arrive at that decision through a transparent and democratic process. The fact that he got a resounding approval from the 50,000 strong Indian American community present at the rally merely served to confirm for the American political establishment that New Delhi’s decision on Article 370 comes with a strong backing of the Indian populace.

In this context, Modi’s visit to the US managed to cover a lot of ground and was worth all the effort. Of course, trade tensions with the US still remain, Trump remains an unpredictable interlocutor, and Pakistan still has its backers in the US. But Modi’s visit was not about resolving all these problems. It was about managing to reverse the decline in the relationship by reassuring Trump and about reaching out to the wider international community. He was effective on both counts. It is now for Indian diplomacy to sustain the momentum generated by this visit.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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