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#4691, 13 October 2014

Eagle Eye

Modi-Obama Summit: Criticism for Criticism’s Sake?
Chintamani Mahapatra
Professor at the Centre for Canadian, US and Latin American Studies, JNU

India’s hyperactive Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now widely known for his magic - the Modi Magic. His charisma made him popular ever since he began his tour of India to campaign for the parliamentary election and his charm became more widespread going beyond the borders of India soon after he became the Indian Prime Minister. 

In one month, Prime Minister Modi has held three summit level meetings with three world leaders - Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the US President Barack Obama. The Chinese leader announced an investment of US$20 billion to develop infrastructure in India; the Japanese leader declared an amount of US$35 billion and, while the American leader could make no such commitment, the US-Indian Business Council estimated that Modi’s visit to the US would bring about US$41 billion of investment to India.

Why the US president was not able to make an open commitment on investing in India is not unknown. It is the private corporate sector in the US that can make investment commitments and not the US administration. And, investment, after all, is not aid!

There is no doubt that Modi’s summit meeting with the US President was the most important among the three summits, not only because the US is a superpower, but because Washington’s approach towards the new government in Delhi would considerably impact China’s attitude and Japanese engagement vis-à-vis India.

Critics point out that Modi’s US visit was high on symbolism and low on substance. Some pointed out that the grand reception he received in New York was the handiwork of the Gujarati community in the US. It has also been argued that there was a big media hype in India about Modi’s US visit, but there was nothing of significant importance in the coverage by the US media. Still others complain that no new agreement was signed during the Modi-Obama summit, no big ticket item was proclaimed, and that there was nothing original in the joint statement issued by the two leaders.

These are actually criticisms for criticism’s shake. First of all, Modi’s address at the Madison Square was clearly aimed at the Indian American community and not just the Gujarati community. In fact, the short cultural programme before the Prime Minister’s arrival had an India flavour and the Rajasthani dance performance by Gujarati dancers symbolised the unity of India in diversity! The Prime Minister’s announcement of life time visas for overseas Indians (PIO and CIO) was not meant for the Gujarati community alone.   

Secondly, American newspapers rarely give wide coverage to any one foreign leader, and Prime Minister Modi’s meeting with the US President in view of this fact was like such meetings in the White House, that is, almost a daily affair. Moreover, an article by the PM in The Wall Street Journal, a major voice of corporate America, and a joint article by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi in the influential The Washington Post were quite uncommon feats.

Finally, a pair of eagle eyes is needed to discover the novel elements in the US-India joint statement. First, the statement clearly and strongly sends signals to Pakistan to rope in its home-grown terrorist networks and to China to follow international law in handling maritime disputes in the South China Sea. No diplomatic nicety was shown, unlike earlier joint statements, in matters of tackling terrorism and managing freedom of the seas.
Secondly, the need to robustly tackle the IS and D-Company, among other terrorist outfits, and their safe heavens, was a significant part of the joint statement and the mark of the Modi Government on this issue was crystal clear.

Thirdly, the concord between the two leaders to clean up the logjam in the implementation of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement was an important declaration. The UPA government failed to implement years after the declaration of the nuclear deal and six years after signing the 123 agreement.

Significantly, Modi’s summit with President Obama preceded his unprecedented corporate diplomacy marked by his meetings with the CEOs of a large number of American Big Business houses and his public diplomacy with the influential Indian American community. In both these initiatives, the Prime Minister’s goal was to allure American investments into India to create smart cities, modernise the country’s infrastructure and turn India into a manufacturing hub of the world.

Modi was neither selling dreams nor making populist remarks. He had done his home work. Based on his understanding of India’s strengths - democracy, demography and demands - he tried to convince the American public and the government the benefit of doing business in and with India. Neither his corporate diplomacy nor his public diplomacy was anathema to the White House.

Modi has planted many seeds in the US. The road to success, however, is long and not without hurdles.       

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