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Transforming the relationship: From the transactional to the strategic

October 02, 2014 17:07 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington, DC, September 30.

'To expect that he has a magic wand to resolve all differences and announce breakthroughs in all issues during his first visit to the US is to be unrealistic,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not a modern day Swami Vivekananda to conquer the West on his first visit nor is he Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to dazzle the world with his charismatic diplomacy.

He is the new prime minister of India, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party which opposed the India-US nuclear deal first and supported the Nuclear Liability Act to deny US nuclear trade with India. He became prime minister at a time when India-US relations were at a low ebb and he himself was denied a US visa.

To expect that he has a magic wand to resolve all differences and announce breakthroughs in all issues during his first visit to the US is to be unrealistic.

As anticipated in these columns, Modi made a mark in the US, where the image in the media and the public mind matter, he established rapport with President Obama, reached agreements on the way to resolve difficult issues and identified new areas of cooperation, in keeping with his agenda for India's development and security.

The Vision Statement and the Joint Statement contain the way forward in specific areas. Instead of going for the low hanging fruit to show immediate achievements, the two sides decided to work diligently to transform the relationship from the transactional to the strategic.

Nuclear and arms trade on mutually acceptable terms, the combat together against terrorism and fighting climate change are long-term goals, which will immensely benefit the two countries and give the right signals to the rest of the world. The joint Op-ed in the Washington Post, a novel diplomatic tool, showed that the two leaders share a global view.

Nothing in Modi's domestic or foreign policy was a matter of concern to Obama. Modi's domestic agenda, consisting of a liberalised and foreign investment friendly economy and a strengthened defence sector is conducive to the growth of India-US cooperation.

His neighbourhood policy and interactions with Japan, China, Russia, Israel and Australia have given no reason for concern for the US.

His position on international terrorism that it is a crime against humanity and that the ISIS's activities are a challenge to mankind, against which all people should unite coincides with Obama's own worldview.

His assertion that terrorism in India is not home grown and that Indian Muslims will defeat Al Qaeda was much appreciated. On Afghanistan, he hinted at a continuing role for the US in the troubled nation.

Modi's maiden speech at the United Nations was striking for its restraint and realism, though his using a prepared text detracted from his usual oratorical flourish.

He was firm on Pakistan when he made it clear that India will engage in a dialogue with Pakistan only in an atmosphere free of violence and terrorism.

He dealt with the issue of terrorism in the larger context of the world and called upon the United Nations to adopt a comprehensive convention against terrorism, which India had proposed years ago.

He stated that India's whole philosophy is one of treating the whole world as a family. He was restrained even when he spoke of the need for expansion of the UN Security Council, as he did so without reiterating India's own claim. He urged unity in the United Nations suggesting that, instead of breaking into various groups, it should act as a 'G-All.'

The unprecedented rock star reception accorded to Modi at the Madison Square Garden reflected the genuine admiration and expectation on the part of Indian Americans that he will transform India.

Indian Americans extend support to India selectively. They were critical of Indian policies at times, but fully supportive on other occasions, like at the time of the nuclear deal.

The Indian-American population, which is not only prosperous, but also in crucial professions, has considerable influence. That explains why several Senators and Congressmen, including the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the equivalent body in the House and a Governor, were at hand to greet Modi.

The India Caucus in Congress and the Friends of India in the Senate are the offshoots of the growing clout of Indian Americans in US politics.

President Barack Obama cannot but take into account the tremendous enthusiasm of the significant 1% of his people for the new leader of the largest democracy. The very purpose of the Madison Square Garden extravaganza was exactly that.

The Madison Square Garden event was more important for its symbolism and implications for the future than for what was said or done there. But Modi could be trusted to say the right things at the right time.

He harped basically on three themes -- how the overseas Indians, particularly, Indian Americans, have raised India's standing and prestige abroad, the greatness of India, old and new and his personal promise to meet expectations by sheer dint of hard work.

Modi's image of the Indians of today playing with the computer mouse rather than the proverbial snake was a compliment not only to India but also overseas Indians who spearheaded the IT revolution in the world. He thanked Indian Americans for keeping awake with bated breath during the Indian elections, even though they could not participate in the vote. Many had even gone to India to provide support to him, he said.

Modi was at his best in waxing eloquent on Indian heritage and its potential. Gandhi created the freedom movement and he is determined to create a clean India movement. India is a young nation with an ancient history. With his penchant to create alphabetical soups for all occasions, he spoke of three Ds this time -- Democracy, Demographic Dividend and Demand -- which would drive India.

As expected, Modi spoke eloquently about Mangalayan, the highly successful Mars mission, which took India to the galaxy of four Mars explorers. In Gujarat, an autorickshaw ride costs Rs 10 per kilometre, but the journey to the Mars cost only Rs 7 per kilometre, an argument against the charge of extravagance voiced by some. Though the Mars mission was launched before Modi's emergence, he took full credit for it.

Modi announced some consular concessions to overseas Indians, but not the dual citizenship, the long cherished dream of Indian Americans. Many had expected him to announce it, going beyond the Person of Indian Origin card and the Overseas Citizen of India card, put in place by previous governments.

He must have explored it and realised that dual citizenship was not feasible for various reasons, including Constitutional constraints. A lifelong visa for PIO cardholders is, however, an improvement. His own visa issue appeared to be behind his comment that India was offering visas on arrival to those who are reluctant to give visas to Indians.

Pepsico's Indra Nooyi encapsulated the American response, when she said, 'Great Prime Minister, answers questions brilliantly. He is very focused on improving India and we are ready to work with him.'

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Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA, Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council,Director General, Kerala International Centre.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama at the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial in Washington, DC, September 30.

T P Sreenivasan