T K Arun
As Gujarat CM, Modi had been a vehement critic of Indo-US nuclear deal, the basis of current shared geopolitical interests between the nations.
When India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, goes to the US to meet with the US President and address a joint session of Congress — for the second time after his address in 2016, when Joe Biden looked on in his capacity as Vice-President — there is much gushing in the media about the warm ties between the leaders of the two countries and how this bodes well for bilateral ties.
But, of course, in relations between nations, there are permanent interests but no permanent friends. What if the interests of individual leaders conflict with those of their nations? Will the national interest change, or will the leaders change their positions? Going by what happened to Narendra Modi, it is safe to assume that leaders will abandon their former positions, to embrace what they had once opposed, and with gusto.
As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had been a vehement critic of the Indo-US nuclear deal, the basis of current shared geopolitical interests between India and the US, and emphatic articulation of those shared interests. That treaty led to India’s quasi-membership of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group, and admittance to other key strategic groupings that restrict access to military technology to non-members: the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement on dual-use technologies and the Australia Group on chemical weapons and their precursor chemicals. The treaty embodied President George Bush’s desire that India would grow its strategic capabilities to become a counterweight to China.
The signing of that treaty also signalled to American companies that there is trust between the governments of the two countries and they could do business with Indian entities without undue worry about geopolitical ructions disrupting business. Without this treaty, a company like Boeing would never have agreed to source the metal scaffolding for their Dreamliners from the Tatas.
When BJP and Left were on same plank
Modi’s party, the BJP, was so opposed to the Indo-US nuclear treaty that it joined hands with the Left to try and bring down the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that had signed the deal. History will give credit to Manmohan Singh for standing firm on going ahead with the nuclear deal, in the teeth of opposition from the UPA’s leftist allies and ambivalent support from most Congress leaders, and to Sonia Gandhi, who, as the leader of the UPA, decided to back Singh and mobilise fresh allies after the Left ditched it, to defeat the no-confidence motion moved by the BJP against the government.
The UPA prevailed; the Indo-US nuclear deal survived and released India from the technology denial regime in which the West had sought to cage its strategic capabilities after its nuclear tests.
In 2014, the UPA lost the general elections, and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power, with Modi as Prime Minister. It is a good thing that Modi is a practitioner of yoga — he should not find it particularly hard to do the Sirsasana (the headstand), invert his position on the Indo-US nuclear deal and broader relations, and reinvent himself as an enthusiast.
He performed this volte-face on Aadhaar, the Unique Identity Scheme, which underpins all the advances in digital payments and financial inclusion, and on the move to replace most indirect taxes other than Customs Duty with the Goods and Services Tax as well. So ardent has his advocacy of Aadhaar and GST been since that most external observers believe he introduced, rather than opposed, these innovations.
What Modi learned from Nehru
Modi has, to his credit, embraced the Nehruvian essence of India’s policy of strategic autonomy, even while trashing Nehru and seeking to erase his legacy from public memory, removing Nehru’s name from the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He has found it possible for India to be a member of the anti-China Quad grouping, comprising the US, Japan, Australia, and India, doing joint exercises of their armed forces, as well as join hands with Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and the US to form a middle-eastern Quad, but still refuse to align with the West on Russia’s annexation of Ukraine.
India and China are the biggest buyers of Russian oil, to the feigned chagrin of the West. The US and its allies are quietly relieved that India and China buy Russian oil, proportionately reducing their demand from other sources, so that there is no net addition to demand from non-Russian sources of oil to push oil prices further up.
Having identified China as its systemic rival, the Biden administration is keen to cultivate and strengthen India as a counterweight to China in Asia. In military heft, in economic potential, and in the size of its technically qualified manpower, no other country in non-Chinese Asia comes anywhere close to India. If Biden wants to decouple from China on sensitive technology, and supply chains, more broadly, India is the go-to alternative. This makes the Biden administration swallow its bile over India’s refusal to toe the line on Ukraine, and ignore the good people protesting against the Modi regime’s record on majoritarianism, democratic dissent, and repression of the Opposition.
Likely hits and misses
The Modi visit will probably see some high-profile defence deals, including transfer of technology for GE’s F414 jet engine for India’s home-built multirole combat aircraft, at least one more public display of Modi adulation by the American contingent of the Indian diaspora, triumphant bonhomie, to be savoured by fans back home, between the leader of the world’s most powerful nation and the leader of the world’s most populous nation, vocal, shared commitment to keep the Indo-Pacific free and open (diplomatese for stick-it-to-the-Chinese), and, finally, the return home of a Modi, who, but for the time it would take, could well have walked over the Atlantic on his detour to Egypt.
India’s shared interests with China in getting the rich world to pull its deserved weight on reversing climate change, forging a shield against the weaponized dollar and against the fashion sense that dresses up unipolar dominance of the world as the one and only rules-based world order, will, naturally, not find much public airing during the visit. India’s aspiration to keep Russia a viable centre of global power and for Europe to emerge as a power bloc in its own right will also fail to get much public traction.
Improved relations between India and the US are good for India, whoever is the leader of either country. Even if the identity of the particular individuals involved does not matter all that much, it would be advisable for Modi, this time around, not to get carried away and declare Biden, or for that matter, Trump, as the next president of the US of A.
The article was first published in The Federal as Why doing a Sirsasana on Indo-US ties may serve Modi, and India, well on June 20, 2023.
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