PM Modi in US: The celebratory 'Howdy Modi' of the Trump era gave way to 'business as usual'

How successful was Prime Minister Modi's visit to the US? BJP triumphantly welcomed the PM back with drums and dancers. But by all accounts it was a sobering visit, writes Salman Khurshid

PM Modi in US: The celebratory 'Howdy Modi' of the Trump era gave way to 'business as usual'

Salman Khurshid

Prime Minister Modi is back from the US. The most specific item of success is the 157 antiques he has brought back to India. Of course he tweeted the usual optimism about the natural partnership between the two countries being taken forward. The MEA spokesperson added the phrase ‘landmark visit’ to sum up what truthfully can be described as business as usual and careful sizing of each other.

The QUAD in-person meet was of course a positive on the score card but one wonders if it remains focused on US concerns about the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea. But the announcement about AUKUS ( Australia-UK-US ) security alliance with a categorical reiteration that India and Japan will not be part of it left India to explain that it is an alliance between three countries mentioned and will not impact the Quad. Are we disappointed or were we never really interested in the idea?

The lack of information about this in the public domain leaves one to wonder whether like the unilateral US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, this is part of a pattern where pledges of partnership do not mean much in taking decisions that are of great concern to India.

Afghanistan developments have left a huge worry for India, both in the immediate context as indeed for the months and years ahead. There is no indication that US and India put their heads together to revisit the policy as it presented itself in the hasty withdrawal as indeed how it can at least going forward take on board India’s perception and concern.

What the US interlocutors, particularly Vice President Kamala Harris spent a great deal of time underscoring were democratic values and commitment, with the usual message of religious tolerance and inclusive politics. Thankfully the messaging was gentle and cordial, although the real or contrived bonhomie of the visits during President Trump’s tenure was conspicuously missing.

While to an extent the conspicuous celebratory mood of ‘Howdy Modi-Namaste Trump’ events gave way to routine business between working partners. US seems to have much on its mind but despite the seeming willingness of the Modi government its experience with India makes it cautious. On the other hand we just do not seem to be able to take them into confidence about what we are faced with in the neighbourhood of South Asia, particularly our uneasy present relationship with China.

With Russia and China warming up to each other and together willing to keep Pakistan in the loop and the US not really showing depth in relations with India, we seem unhappily balanced between two stools with neither of them as steady as in the past. We are neither ready to be an ally of the US nor have we received any clear signals to do so. A contract or two like the Airbus deal for the supply of military aircraft is just that and not a stepping stone to something bigger.

The Democratic administration has a clear ideological commitment to democracy described in maximalist terms. Undoubtedly many of the policies of the present Indian government, or at least what passes off as conduct that it condones and many of its supporters actively advocate cannot be explicitly accepted by the likes of Kamala Harris.

Although in some security and sovereignty related issues there might be common ground between the Opposition and Indian government, such as J&K being an internal matter of the country and Pakistan’s support to adventurism and terrorism directed at the former State, there are clear differences on the recent steps that the government has taken to resolve the years-old political stalemate and violence.

Unfortunately there is no evidence of serious analytical thinking having been attempted by the government and certainly there has been virtually no discussion or consultation with the Opposition. The reluctance to debate important issues of public importance in Parliament has further added to paucity of public dissemination of critical positions of the government of the day.

The PM made the usual intervention in the UN General Assembly debate with the predicted Pakistan bashing. There is usually good reason to throw a few barbs at them and the Pakistan Head of delegation seldom fails to add provocation. But this time the prize must go to the young IFS lady who took on Pakistan, using words with penetrating chastisement but a presentation exceptionally professional. She topped it with remarkable poise and self control by quickly showing the door to a fawning media anchor in search for the opportunity to break into an impromptu celebration.

At the same time if our PM is serious about acquiring the 'Statesman of Asia' title, he may have to pitch his thoughts higher. Merely regurgitating platitudes about climate change and combating Covid is not the stuff statesmanship is made of.

India must indeed become an example of whatever we want at the high table of the world before we seek to speak about it. Those two topics are not something we can presently boast about. Terrorism must of course remain our stated concern but there too it is time that we provided actionable lead to the world. In our neighbourhood we have seen terrorist outfits morphing into new identities with lethal consequences. But are we in the position to say that we have convince our counterparts across the globe or meaningfully contributed to combatting it.

The lead India must take might require reflection upon the Cuban representative getting up to seek remembrance for Palestinians even as the Israeli diplomat sought condolence for Jews slaughtered by the Nazis.

( The writer is a former External Affairs Minister. Views are personal)

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