Can PM Modi allay American concerns on policy or polity?
Prime Minister Modi’s skills will be tested on his upcoming visit to the United States. The challenge comes in light of recent anti-India sentiments voiced at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. With Modi set to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, this is an opportunity to address all concerns, be it on policy or polity.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fourth visit to the United States next month will primarily be aimed at consolidating the gains made under President Barack Obama while stanching the negativity in the U.S. Congress.
Engagement with both branches of the U.S. government is important for a successful relationship as any leader dealing with Washington knows because the mile-long distance between the White House and Capitol Hill can often have speed breakers.
The two-day visit will take Modi to Capitol Hill for an address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, where he will speak directly to the legislature about the evolving India-U.S. story – progress already made and yet to be made. It would be an opportunity to address all concerns, be they on policy or polity.
Indian and U.S. officials are working on “deliverables” to showcase the visit. There is expectation that the two sides will sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement to provide supplies and fuel to each other’s armed forces after more than a decade of negotiations and doubt.
Obama personally invited Modi when the two met for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington two months ago. The idea was to lock in the progress made on climate change and defence relations – the two areas that immediately stand out – for the next administration to build upon.
The Obama administration is believed to be working hard on getting India into the Nuclear Suppliers Group in the face of Chinese opposition and despite objections from Washington’s non-proliferation community. It would be a solid marker of progress.
India was a rare positive legacy Obama inherited from the Bush Administration and it’s been a continuing success story for the most part. He wants to leave it that way.
Markers are important because of the unpredictability of this American election. A Donald Trump victory could possibly throw U.S. foreign policy into chaos and the more Obama can put things are in place, and the Congress enshrine them in law, the better. He understands the stakes – he has been inserting himself into the presidential election process by speaking about how Trump “rattles” foreign leaders.
While support for India-U.S. relations remains strong and bipartisan, the U.S. Congress has begun voicing complaints on several issues, ranging from trade to human rights. The negatives are largely driven by constituent pressure, be it U.S. companies demanding better intellectual property protection and market access or Christian organizations raising concerns about religious intolerance.
At the same time, several good bills and amendments offered by India-friendly senators and congressmen are currently in the legislative process that recognize India as a special defence partner and enshrine in law what the Obama Administration has been doing through the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative. The hope is to pass at least one bill or amendment in both houses in time for Modi’s visit or shortly after.
But the anti-India sentiment has to be addressed. At a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) on May 24 designed to take stock of bilateral relations senators were particularly vociferous about India’s high tariffs, limits on foreign investment, red tape, lack of adequate IP protection, localization requirements and the lack of a bilateral investment treaty despite years of negotiations.
Above all, they questioned why there was still no contract for U.S. companies to build nuclear reactors in India as envisaged under the 2008 Civil Nuclear agreement. Bob Corker, Republican chairman of the SFRC who is not seen as a friend of India, was especially angry at the lack of a nuclear reactor deal.
Even though significant progress has been made by the Modi government through the “contact group” in working out the insurance pool, resolving liability issues in case of an accident and ratifying the international Convention on Supplementary Compensation – all thorny issues left over by the UPA government – Corker seemed unimpressed. Either he was unaware of the distance travelled in two years or he didn’t want to acknowledge it.
His bottomline: “hopeful rhetoric has far exceeded actual tangible achievements” and there is a “widening expectations gap.” The blanket criticism and the harsh tone of the hearing was a surprise.
Corker even accused India of harbouring 12 to 14 million “slaves,” a charge that shook India watchers because the stark term had never been used before. Apparently, the figure of 12 million includes every oppressed group in India from child labour to trafficked women to bonded labour and anyone earning less than a dollar per day.
Other senators brought up particular U.S.-based Christian groups that have been denied visas or faced income tax raids and talked about growing religious intolerance. The denial of visas to members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a quasi government body, was also noted.
There is no denying that perception has grown in Washington that India under Modi has seen an increase in cases of communal violence even as the government dismisses all incidents as “stray” and its supporters in the media find new ways to explain the climate. Unless addressed intelligently, it can have a corrosive effect on bilateral relations, making Indian diplomats defensive and the human rights activists here more aggressive.
This very public attack covering India’s inadequacies two weeks before Modi’s visit didn’t come from left field as one might think. Anger has been bubbling for some time ever since the Ford Foundation came under scrutiny in India. Human rights groups were activated and old constituencies against India came into play. The public airing was a result of this pressure on various senators and congressmen. In Corker they found a willing ally since he is believed to be passionate about ending “modern day slavery.”
In the end, the disillusionment with India reflects badly on the Indian government’s messaging and outreach, according to a long-time friend of India in Washington. Corker, a key senator who blocked funding for Pakistan’s F-16s, has apparently not visited India. Incidentally, the intense lobbying by India against the F-16s irked some key senators.
Modi’s skills will be tested this time more than they were on his first visit in September 2014, when hype and expectations were the order of the day. Now the pendulum has swung a little from that happy place.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.