My photo

Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Modi's Speech to US Congress: Culmination of Bipartisan Effort for Closer Indo-US Ties

As India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Washington to address the joint sitting of the US Congress, becoming the fifth Indian Prime Minister to do so, Indo-US ties reached a new high in a saga of deepening cooperation between the two democracies. Banned for about 9 years from travelling to the United States, the Prime Minister must be credited for not holding a personal grudge and instead focusing on the advancement of India's national interest through closer cooperation with the United States, a policy which has been pursued strongly by his predecessors. Indeed, endorsement by the United States, Switzerland and Mexico for India's entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an elite club of 48 nations governing trade in items used for nuclear technology, is the culmination of a coherent Foreign Policy followed in this regard by Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh even in the face of strong opposition at home.

Hesitations of History 

Prime Minister Modi, in his 45 minute address to US Lawmakers, emphasised that Indo-US relations have overcome the hesitations of history. It is a poignant phrase which wonderfully captures the troubled relationship India and the United States shared at the time of the Cold War. A newly Independent India followed a policy of non-alignment as opposed to its neighbour and rival Pakistan, which opted to become a member of SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization) and CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), both military alliances modelled on the lines of NATO and lead by the US, for safeguarding its security interests. As time passed, India increasingly became close to the Soviet Union for its security needs, especially through the Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation signed in the backdrop of Indo-Pakistan war of 1971.

The ties plummeted to an all time low when India conducted its nuclear test in 1998. Codenamed Operation Smiling Buddha, the covert nature of the tests left the intelligence community in the west red faced and led its failure to detect Indian preparations for an imminent test being known as "intelligence failure of the decade". The United States and other European Nations imposed sanctions, which were lifted by President George W Bush in an effort to stitch together a global alliance against terrorism following the 9/11 attacks. Economic and Strategic cooperation between the two countries began to pick up given the converging geo-political interests and economic reforms at home, but India continued to be a victim of nuclear apartheid by reason of its being excluded from important institutions like the NSG and MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime), denying it an opportunity to engage in trade of nuclear technology with other nations.

Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal

What changed the contours of the relationship between the two countries was the hard push given to and the personal leadership shown with regard to the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2008. The soft-spoken Prime Minister who was accused of lacking real power and the ability to take decisions on his own, showed uncharacteristic defiance and stuck to his guns in order to support the Agreement with the United States, even risking his own government. The Left Parties famously withdrew support to the United Progressive Alliance, and the government was saved through the outside support of several regional parties. 

Manmohan Singh's leadership also benefited Indo-US relationship in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, when he and President Obama developed personal rapport and a close working relationship. In his own address to the US Congress, Prime Minister Singh called India's non-proliferation track record as "impeccable" and said that the country neither has, nor will, support the proliferation of sensitive nuclear technology to third countries. He also gave a call for the end of nuclear apartheid against India and an early admission of India to NSG. In his speech to the Indian Parliament in 2010, President Barack Obama endorsed India's case for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council, thus taking one more step in the direction of strong Indo-US ties. 

Strategic Autonomy to Strategic Alliance

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking to build on the progress made by his predecessors, has shifted the focus of Indian Foreign Policy from Strategic Autonomy to that of Strategic Alliance. This is a policy which is mindful of the rapidly changing geo-political realities in the region as evidenced by the strong and deepening partnership between China and Pakistan. Nations cannot change their geographies, but they cannot be tied down by their neighbours either. Modi seeks to develop India into a major manufacturing hub and needs enormous foreign direct investment to make that dream come true. The Indian Economy is a lone bright spot in the current global scenario with a growth rate of 7.5% and a young population with majority of its citizens below the age of 35 years. 

In his speech to the US lawmakers, Modi tried to leverage both these strong points and also made a case for closer economic and strategic cooperation and reiterated his focus on government's flagship initiatives like Skill India, Smart Cities, Digital India and building rail, road and port infrastructure. In agreeing to ratify the Paris Climate Change Deal in exchange for a US led push for India's entry into the NSG, the Prime Minister also displayed the Gujarati characteristic skill of striking a good bargain. His call for greater investment from US Businesses drew serious attention given the slowing down of the economy of China and increasing strains in US-China bilateral ties. 

A Roadblock Named China

One of the strategic objectives of a closer Indo-US relationship is to secure the freedom of navigation in the seas particularly in the Asia Pacific region. China's increasing assertiveness in the South China sea has seriously impacted the security considerations of the countries such as Japan and Australia. The United States has led an effort to check China's activities in the region and prevent a major conflict from taking place. Closer Indo-US ties would go a long way in counterbalancing China's influence in the region and maintaining a balance of power in the South Asian region. 

There are obvious implications. China is leading an effort to block the entry of India in the NSG, demanding that its ally Pakistan also be admitted under a "non-discriminatory approach" if India's entry is to be considered. This is obviously not possible since Pakistan has a horrible proliferation record (Iran and North Korea acquired nuclear technology from A Q Khan, father of Pakistan's nuclear program) and its entry into the NSG would render the body meaningless. 

As the United States gets ready to elect a new President, Prime Minister Modi will have to act to make sure that the gains made so far in the Indo-US ties continue to bear their fruits irrespective of the kind of administration that takes charge next. He must improve India's human rights record and continue to protect the interests of India's religious and ethnic minorities while delivering sustainable economic growth. The deepening relations between the world's oldest and the world's largest democracies will significantly benefit people of both the countries if allowed to blossom to their maximum potential.