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From visa blacklist to red carpet, America u-turns on Modi

modiobamaCOMMENT, NEW DELHI: Even the bitterest detractors of the US marvel at their willingness to follow the old adage ‘there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends’.

The only thing permanent for them is the US’ interests.

Even these ought to be reassessed and re-interpreted according to changing times. For decades, they ignored China and put Taiwan in its place in the UNSC.

But there was a historic revision of their policy towards China. In the early hours of July 15, 1971, Henry Kissinger met Mao Tse Tung in his study in the Forbidden City and initiated the Sino-American rapprochement.

The rest is history.

They might not have seen eye to eye on many international issues but huge economic content and vested mutual business interests have deterred them from precipitating a major crisis and kept the relationship going.

The only country in the world that defeated them squarely and sent over 58,000 body bags back to the US is Vietnam.

Today, the US and Vietnam are on the same page in the face of increasing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Obliterating the bitter memories of the past, the US is at present one of the biggest investors in Vietnam and a major trading partner.

The US, with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, helped create the Taliban to drive out the Soviets from Afghanistan.

But the same US dislodged Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001. While the Taliban remain a terrorist organisation in the eyes of the UN, US

President Barack Obama has no qualms in talking to the so called “good Taliban” as the drawdown of US forces nears.

In fact, he authorised the exchange of five Taliban men for American Sgt Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan.

In light of this history, the unabashed U-turn and eagerness of the US to court Narendra Modi after keeping him on the visa blacklist for years on account of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat on his watch should surprise none.

Modi can walk tall

The message is loud and clear: the newly-elected Indian Prime Minister, with a comfortable majority in Parliament and complete domination of his party, is the undisputed boss of India, at least for the next five years, and the US is ready to do business with him.

Evidently, business prospects will be the driving engines of India-US relations under the Modi government, though areas of cooperation, especially in Afghanistan, the South China Sea, international terrorism, global warming, UN reforms etc will also be explored.

It makes sense and has a win-win potential for both the countries. So, when Narendra Modi walks on the bright red carpet unrolled by Obama at the White House in September, he will be walking tall with the confidence of the mandate of the Indian electorate and riding on the hopes, aspirations and expectations of 1.2 billion Indians.

It shouldn’t be difficult to pick up the threads where Atal Behari Vajpayee left off.

It was during his time that Bill Clinton made his historic presidential visit in March 2000 and helped create institutional infrastructure to engage with each other in spite of having imposed sanctions following India’s nuclear tests in May 1998.

The process of economic liberalisation initiated by Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh was further widened during the NDA government.

There is bipartisan support in the US for closer relations with India.

The process of moving closer to India, though started by Democrat President Clinton, was crowned with an unprecedented milestone by a the Republican President George W. Bush, who worked hard to have the civil nuclear agreement signed in 2008.

Similarly, notwithstanding their rhetoric when they are in Opposition, there is no basic difference in the approach of the Congress party and the BJP towards the US, whether it is nuclear liability, FDI in retail or opening up areas like insurance, education, pension and American investment in general.

Sure, there will be differences in nuances, decision-making and execution largely on account of Modi’s proactive approach.

Not dependent on coalition partners, he has much greater leeway to give shape to Indo-American relations than his two predecessors.

Mature democracies

Besides, he has built a formidable reputation of being a quick, pragmatic, clear-headed and resolute leader with a national vision who is business-friendly and capable of cutting through the maze of red tape to get decisions implemented.

That should reassure US MNCs about the economic policies, their continuity and application of the taxation regime.
Defence trade, already booming, is tipped to grow further. Both sides have a long list of grievances and disappointments.

But these issues are not unsurmountable; what is needed is political will and genuine interest.

Unless the top leaders give a political push, as did George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh for the nuclear deal, the strategic partnership will remain only on paper.

As two mature democracies, India and the US ought to discuss all bilateral issues up-front and with candour and find ways to resolve them.
India is too big, too diverse and too independent to be bullied by anyone.

The US, though in decline, is still the only superpower; its economy is six times bigger than India’s.

India can’t find a replacement for the US for possible collaboration in science and technology, innovation, space, climate change and global warming, pollution control, education, infrastructure and agriculture.

Besides, warmer relations with the US have a cascading effect on relations with a host of other developed nations, such as the EU grouping, Japan, Korea, Canada, Australia etc. So, it serves India’s national interests to warm up to the US as a valuable partner.

On the other hand, the US must move beyond flattering phrases to characterise its relationship with India.

The US President will have to invest attention, time and energy on priority to transform relations with India.

The current downward trend in the Indian economy shouldn’t have too dampening an effect.

With a decisive and go-getting PM like Modi, there are no full stops in the India story; it is bound to be back on the growth path.

Who can ignore the huge market that India offers?

Her aspirational middle class has a voracious appetite for everything American. Uncle Sam is accused of all ills but things American are lapped up in India.

Obama’s phone call to Modi, secretary of state John Kerry’s phone conversation with Sushma Swaraj and assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs Nisha Biswal’s visit all unmistakably signal that the US is extending a hand in friendship.

Prime Minister Modi should clasp this hand warmly; it will serve the vital interests of both countries. - By Surendra Kumar, for The Asian Age

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