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Pentagon concerned about what would happen if Modi is 'hit by a bus'

June 04, 2015 13:03 IST

The administration and America Inc have invested in Narendra Modi's power to transform India. Aziz Haniffa/ reports from Washington, DC.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Cabinet ministers (from right) Arun Jaitley (finance), Rajnath Singh (home) and M Venkaiah Naidu (parliamentary affairs). 'It may slow down progress if Modi were to suddenly exit the world stage, but it’s not going to turn back the clock,' a Brookings conference on the NDA government's first year in office was told. Photograph: PTI Photo.

Now the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex -- obviously salivating for billions of dollars of military sales to India and strongly advocating and even more robust US-India defence cooperation, beyond simply joint exercises -- is worried over what could happen to such high hopes if Prime Minister Narendra Modi "is hit by a bus tomorrow."

At the Brookings conference assessing the first year of the Modi government, Diane Farrell, executive vice president and senior director of the US-India Business Council, disclosed that while America Inc had recently been briefing top Pentagon officials, this was a concern that had been raised.

"I was at a building yesterday, which has five sides -- and you can figure it out -- and the question was as we were giving the briefing, what would happen to India if Modi got hit by a bus tomorrow."

"And, the answer we gave, was that it could slow the pace, but the reality is that as the voters expressed last March, India is going to move forward. It’s a matter of how quickly, whether it’s in fits and starts, whether it’s on a sweeping basis, but either way, India will go forward."

When Bruce Jones, Acting Vice President and Director, Foreign Policy at Brookings, who moderated the discussion, intervened and said he would like to explore this concern about "what happens if Modi was hit by a bus," Farrell quickly responded, "No one’s pushing for that -- we are all hoping for a healthy tenure."

When Jones persisted with this concern during the interaction that followed, Farrell reiterated, "I really have a belief in the Indian democratic system fundamentally, and as a result, in spite of the fact that he may be a very centric-driven individual, in spite of his own style, the people I spoke to, say in one way or the another, it may slow down progress if he were to suddenly exit the world stage, but it’s not going to turn back the clock."

"Again, it might take a little longer, but it will happen. There is too much of an aspirational incentive -- you just can’t turn back the clock. You just can’t put the genie back in the bottle," she added.

In February, during a conference hosted by the Carnegie Endowment titled ‘Unity in Difference: Overcoming the US-India Divide’, Alan Kronstadt, the specialist in South Asian Affairs, Congressional Research Service -- which is the United States Congress’s own think tank -- that since the Bharatiya Janata Party lacked a ‘deep bench’, the consensus among experts was that if Modi were to suddenly disappear from the scene, the prevailing US optimism on India would rapidly dissipate.

Kronstadt argued that the United States’s engagement with India ‘is predicated on some questionable assumptions,’ and noted that ‘there doesn’t seem to be another Modi in India.’

‘The BJP is not known to have a deep bench on this and so, if Modi were to slip in the shower and hit his head and is removed from government,’ he wondered how it would change the calculations of the US-India partnership now.

At the time, Ashley Tellis, Senior Associate at Carnegie, agreed that the paucity on the BJP bench, and ‘the bad news is that all of this could go for a six — as they say — if something were to happen to Modi because there is no one in India in his party, who has the capacity to mobilise the nation and win the number of seats that he does and shares that conviction of India’s transformation.’

‘You don’t have someone who combines them both,’ he said. ‘You have a lot of people who care about India’s transformation, but they can’t mobilise the country enough to win seats in parliament and run policy.’

Tellis said by the same token, ‘You may have other people who can win seats in Parliament, but care two hoots about transformation.’

‘This guy brings it together nicely, but the bad news is that he’s one of the few and so the bad news is there -- if for some reason, he somehow disappeared from the scene, the optimism about India would begin to questioned again.’

Farrell, who had just returned from India, at the Brookings conference, spoke of how, "To a person in Delhi, on the industry side, affirmed that transparency is now the order of the day. There is credibility that the government is pro-business."

"What they are hoping for is that the same sort of transparency expectation and practice trickling down to the states, which will also have an enormously positive impact when you are talking about industry actually being able to make investment."

As far as America Inc is concerned, Farrell said it was marking Modi’s one year anniversary with "a certain degree of patience," although cognisant that "the budgets have not been bold enough and that the pace of reform is slower than expected."

And, she noted that "if there is a universal theme expressed by industry, it is concern over tax -- the lingering concern about the consistency of predictability of tax." 

'India needs to succeed at home to do more abroad'

Prime Minister Modi was much more frank with the Chinese leaders than Indian prime ministers usually are on visits to China, says Tanvi Madan. Aziz Haniffa/ reports from Washington, DC.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the official welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 15, 2015. Modi's foreign visits are very much linked to domestic goals, a Brookings conference was told. Photograph: PIB.

In kicking off the conference and discussion on the Modi government’s first year in office, Bruce Jones, Acting Vice President and Director, Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, which hosted the parley, implied that the jury was still out on the success of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign forays.

Jones, who also heads the prestigious think tank’s Project on International Order and Strategy, said, "I’ve watched Modi do his global tours last fall and I was wondering whether he was excessively using the drama and rhetoric of the global stage to send signals to transform things domestically, or setting unusually high goals that he will fall short of and be accountable at some point of time."

He then turned to his colleague, Tanvi Madan, Director of the India Project at Brookings, to explain the rationale of Modi’s globe-trotting and if this could proffer any tangible returns.

Madan, one of the rising stars among second generation Indian Americans in the proliferating think tank world of policy wonks, acknowledged that "Foreign policy wasn’t expected to be a major emphasis (of the Modi government). He ran on the economy largely, promising growth, good governance, jobs and to get things done."

"And yet he’s spent a major focus on this last year on the international dimension of India’s activities and the government’s as well."

"In some ways," Madan argued, "It’s not entirely surprising or frankly, for any Indian leader today, avoidable," and explained, "India’s geography, its economy, its energy needs, its need for remittances from abroad, make it much more dependent on the world, but also interdependent than it sometimes realised."

"This is something that anybody who comes to power, comes to understand very quickly and Modi is somebody who had spent time -- even as chief minister -- not quite on his state’s foreign policy, but foreign economic policy at least."

"There is," Madan noted, "also the aspect of the fact that he has recognised that this is the moment to take advantage of the interest in India, not just because he got a mandate -- the strongest mandate of any Indian government had got in 25 years -- but also the fact that these kinds of trips are not in isolation."

"They are very much linked to some of these domestic goals," Madan felt, adding, "and as he has outlined it, a strong India, both economically and security-wise."

"For that, he needs stability -- not just in the immediate neighbourhood -- but in the broader region. He needs capital, technology, and investment from abroad, and I don’t know if he needs or wants India to have a larger role in the world -- respect or some version of that."

To Modi, Madan felt, the region that mattered for all of this was the Asia-Pacific and to him South Asia was part of this region and so was the importance of the US.

Modi, she noted, has said, ‘When I look east, I see the western shores of the United States.’

China, she acknowledged, was a major player in this equation of Modi’s vis-à-vis "managing the rising power of China," but noted that "unlike earlier governments and leaders," Modi has tweaked his foreign policy by "following a diversification strategy."

Explaining, Madan said Modi was doing so by "maintaining a diversified portfolio of partners so that you can keep your options open, take advantage of multiple partnerships."

"What’s important about that is that these relationships are not equal and we see particular emphasis on different relationships."

"For example," Madan said, "with the United States, he’s doubled down in that relationship in a way that nobody would have expected for him to go as far and as fast. The intensity of engagement has been further and faster than he would have expected a year ago."

In terms of his articulating of India’s foreign policy, Madan felt, "We’ve seen the mention of not just reaching out, but making red lines clearer. You saw this in his trip to China, in public statements, much more frank than Indian prime ministers often are when there are visiting Chinese leaders or when they are visiting China."

Looking forward, with regard to India’s metamorphosis into not just a balancing power but a leading power, Madan acknowledged, would depend entirely on India succeeding domestically.

Thus, she said, "It’s a chicken and egg thing -- it needs sort of foreign policy successes to be successful at home, but without India winning at home, without India being a credible India, the rest of it goes away."

"And, if it succeeds, India gets to do more abroad," she added.

Modi, Madan felt, will also, in order to counter the stinging criticism that he has been spending too much time on foreign policy and tours abroad, "have to explain why his spending time on all this is going to create jobs at home, and why doing all this is going to be good for farmers and their products."

"That’s one of the major things he will have to do -- sooner rather than later."

Aziz Haniffa/ in Washington, DC