In many ways, the just concluded visit to the US by Prime Minister Narendra Modi stands out. The visit significantly upgraded Indo-US bilateral relations via the new avatar of India’s foreign policy – economic diplomacy. This economic diplomacy is and will continue to define the contours of a new relationship with the US. If the response he received from President Obama, the leaders in US political spectrum or the tech majors is any indication, then Modi’s visit was a home run all the way.
Modi’s visit to the US and in particular the Silicon Valley in California has generated a lot of interest and analysis. His visits to technology innovators like Tesla, Google and Facebook as well as his address to a packed audience of largely Indian Americans have been widely reported in US and the international media. Also an array US politicians lined up to meet, greet and take selfies with Modi. This prompted Obama once again to call Modi a rock star. This speaks of the positive image Modi has cultivated in a country that not long ago had denied him a visa.
While a galaxy of world leaders converged for the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), it was Modi who converted this annual ritual into a charm offensive seeking investments and support for a national mission. The only other leader who attracted this kind of attention was Pope Francis.
Modi’s visit to the US has impacted at least three major areas – technology, diplomacy and defense - all of which will pay rich dividends to India in the coming days.
First, the technology ecosystem. The Digital India initiative is a smart deployment of technology to deliver governmental services to all citizens in a large country where even basic infrastructure may be deficient. Given the slow pace of recovery of the US economy, tech giants have been eyeing greener pastures in emerging markets. Silicon Valley honchos realizing the India opportunity, were candid in their admiration and have expressed eagerness to be part of this massive transformational Digital India initiative. They can play lead role in the successful design, execution and delivery of this mission.
The Google- GOI initiative to provide Wi-Fi facilities at over five hundred railway stations will connect millions of Indians and open up new opportunities for a whole ecosystem of large, medium, small and tiny enterprises. From the tea vendors to MNCs, it will revolutionize the way they do business. This will be replicated all over India by providing broadband access to approximately 500,000 villages in collaboration with Microsoft. Tesla is exploring how its TeslaWall – a wall-mounted battery charged by solar energy that is scalable to power whole neighborhoods – can be used to power villages and transform rural India. It is expected that cumulatively these initiatives will open up the flood gates of employment for millions.
There are sure gains on the diplomatic front as well. At a time when the US is silently redefining its foreign policy strategy, India has gravitated to the spotlight, which is no accident. The Syrian crisis, Paris climate change talks later this year, China’s faltering economy and dissension among its European allies have forced a rethink. Given the US’s inclination to work with Russia in resolving the Syrian crisis, notwithstanding loud ‘protests’ from the administration, it accentuates the ennui of the sole superpower and a newfound, albeit, hesitant willingness to share responsibility for policing the world.
India -specifically Modi - has astutely recognized this emerging white space and is projecting itself as a responsible player in international geopolitics. India’s approach to the Paris talks – that “will set the tone not just for today but for decades to come” - as well as increased involvement / deployment of Indian forces overseas are calculated strategic moves to bring India to the forefront in global geopolitics. Many may not be surprised to see Indian forces joining multinational forces to fight ISIS.
Modi’s US trip will have ramifications in the G4 group too. Today among the G4, arguably though, it is India that is on best terms with the US. The G4 – Brazil, Germany Japan & India – seeks to secure for themselves a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, is also a de-facto emerging economic block. India’s rising influence with the US is bound to yield ample collateral advantage in deciding trade and bilateral relations with three key economies of the world to its full advantage.
The $3 billion deal to buy Chinook and Apache helicopters has not only taken commercial / defense cooperation to a new high, but it has also handed a huge ‘influence quotient’ to India. This deal also has an ulterior message to India’s adversaries – Pakistan and China. They will have to reassess the cost of provoking India. Modi’s demand from US soil to the UN to unequivocally define terrorism is a pointer to the new confidence emanating from his proximity to Obama.
From India’s perspective, this enhanced attention and groundswell of goodwill in US power centers is surely a welcome development. It has indeed come a long way in a very short time, given that in the past, Indian prime ministers came and left the US almost unnoticed even by Indian Americans.
While the US media has been gushing about the visit, the Indian press back home has been critical and even questioning every outcome of the visit. They seem to ignore the facts on the ground and be driven by an agenda to project Modi in poor light at every opportunity. This is indeed regrettable.
One can definitely measure the success of his visit by the quantum of investments flowing into India. But what many have missed is the qualitative shift in the US’s perception of India as an economic power house. One could argue that its ‘influence quotient’ at the White House has gone up. Positive image and diplomatic gains - intangibles as they are - are often perceived and experienced than measured quantitatively.
Modi returned to India with a bagful of benefits – some tangible than others. But he certainly moved India from a country perceived in America as only providing a knee-jerk response to Pakistan’s atrocious remarks on Kashmir at the UN to one which is setting a new economic agenda and controlling the narrative to its benefit like a global power.