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'America has got Modi's friendship'

By Sheela Bhatt/
October 08, 2014 08:09 IST
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'Obama probably thinks, "He is quite a guy!" Americans on Capitol Hill think, "He has guts. He is a big player".' A senior Indian official explains the importance of the Modi visit to Sheela Bhatt/

"I am changing India. I will make India stronger. I have the mandate of the people. Join me. Trust me," was the message Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered to President Barack Obama in Washington, a senior member of the prime minister's team, who planned and executed the Modi visit with meticulous precision, told in an exclusive briefing.

When asked what the original framework for the visit was, the senior government official said, "We wanted the best, biggest and impactful visit. It was to carry forward the Indian election campaign outside India. There were all elements of it -- like the street show (when the prime minister greeted supporters outside his hotel Friday, September 26), the popular response, the mega public show at the Madison Square Garden and Central Park and then culminating in the public engagement along with Obama at the Martin Luther King Memorial."

"Have you seen any American President traveling in his car along with a visiting head of State to visit a memorial of great importance?" the official asked, adding, "Modi and Obama were equal at the memorial. The visit was planned to convey that here is a popular leader who is strong and who can be trusted to deliver promises."

The Indian side is obviously lauding the Modi visit in glowing terms. The visit, they say, signifies that "Zamana badal gaya! (The times have changed in India!)."

When asked if the Modi visit was high on hype and low on substance, the official rubbished that theory, saying, "It is high time people change how to view India and its new leadership."

He explained the joint statement issued after the Modi-Obama summit thus: "Tell me, who is Modi? What does Modi stand for? Modi stands for smart cities, a digital India, Make in India, beti bachao, the Jan Dhan Yojna etc... These are the issues Modi believes in."

Modi came to Washington and asked can America fit into his vision of development for India. "The joint statement is all about that," the official said. "The joint statement is Modi's plan of action. Yes, it is only about intent." But, he argued, in less than four months no government can deliver actual results.

When asked why there had been no forward movement on defence deals or other strategic agreements -- as had been expected before the summit -- the official said that no prime ministerial visit is inter-linked with defence agreements for it brings in unusual pressures and mars the visit.

While discussing US cooperation in tracking down terror figures such as fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim, the official said, "This shows the priorities of the Modi government."

When asked to explain why the South China Sea and other international issues like Iran and North Korea were mentioned in the joint statement, the official asked this correspondent not to "read too much into it. In the Modi government what India believes in will be expressed without hesitation now on."

The official defended the Modi-Obama public connectivity saying, "(Modi's predecessor as India's prime minister) Dr (Manmohan) Singh was considered a thorough gentleman by President (George W) Bush. Obama thought Dr Singh deserves respect for being a knowledgeable person. But in Modi's case, Obama probably thinks, 'He is quite a guy!' Americans on Capitol Hill think, 'He has guts. He is a big player.' I can tell you if Obama had any doubts about Modi or his leadership he would not have driven with Modi to the King memorial. It was a rare and exceptional gesture to drive in the same car."

At the White House dinner, the official revealed, Modi and Obama spoke a lot about their election campaigns. They exchanged notes on how they used social media and other digital platforms. Obama mentioned how impressed he was to see Modi using holograms in the election campaign.

Both leaders debated India's cooperation in the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. "America," the officer said, "wants two things. One, no Indian should be allowed to join ISIS. And India should do everything to stop the flow of money to these terror outfits. India should cooperate to choke the international financing of terror."

Asked if America's help is needed for India's sanitation and water management programmes, the official asked, "Do you get drinkable water in the tap in your home as Americans do?" Modi, he says, wants to improve urban living in India. The United States Agency for International Development already has a sanitation programme in Bangalore.

Modi believes India should go out into the world and adopt or buy the best practices to improve Indian living standards, the official added. The prime minister, the official said, has plans to change India using American systems and processes for urban planning and growth.

The joint statement, he reiterated, is actually Modi's blueprint for new areas of India-US cooperation inside India and a bold approach to international issues.

"For Prime Minister Modi," the official pointed out, "foreign policy is for achieving national goals. Foreign policy is the sub-game of the big national game you play on the home turf." Modi, he added, wants foreign policy to help achieve his vision for India.

Asked about the criticism that 'Modi gained, but India may not have gained much from the visit,' the official, defending the prime minister stoutly, said, "Remember, Modi's slogan in the election campaign was 'India First'. Indian issues have to be at the centre of understanding any bilateral relationship."

United States India Business Council Chairman Ajay Banga, who is also the President and CEO, MasterCard, the official added, indicated at the USIBC meeting with the prime minister in Washington, DC on September 30, that 20 per cent of Council members intend to invest $40 billion in India after hearing Modi.

The official criticised the negative reports about the visit, asking how many world leaders could get 40 US political leaders to attend an event like Modi did at the Madison Square Garden on September 28 -- an event incidentally the prime minister planned himself.

"Hila diya sabko! (The American politicians were shaken up to see Modi's popularity)," he said. "American politicians now know first hand that the Indian-American community is under Modi's spell. At the MSG, it was established that Modi controls the Indian-American community."

When told that the visit was weak on political tie-ups with America, the official responded, "Development is the politics in Modi Raj."

America, he said, would make its assessment of the prime minister, but after the confusion and dithering of Dr Singh's government, US officials recognise that here is an Indian leader who has arrived to take decisions.

What did America gain from the drama-studded Modi visit, asked. The official paused and then said, "America has got Modi's friendship."

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office. Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/

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Sheela Bhatt/ in New York