THE Indo-US relationship is best exemplified by the palpable anxiety in South Block over what transpired last week between Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Washington’s point-person for South Asia, Donald Lu, during their 90-minute meeting at the US State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom, by the River Potomac in Washington.
Despite warm words that are spoken during each interaction with the senior leadership of both countries — and there are plenty — the Indo-US ties under the current Modi-Biden dispensations are still to extricate themselves from the miasma of suspicion that the other side is supping with the home side’s inveterate enemies, domestic and abroad.
The cross of human rights has hung heavy on the Modi government. For successive years, political appointees at the US Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) have been keen to push India into the red list of egregious religious freedom offenders. And each time, the incumbent US Secretary of State has dissimulated opposition to the move.
Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the US and the virtual red carpet — the generous ear to his thoughts provided by the liberal and centrist Washington-based think tanks and the media, and the unusually-long interaction with Lu — feeds into the narrative that the US-India ties are still slow-walking due to a trust deficit.
With Donald Lu, Rahul’s conversations touched on the prospects of Opposition unity, independence of the judiciary, the fallibility of EVMs in the 2024 elections and the pessimistic view of courts giving relief in the disqualification case. Rahul’s clarion cry, repeated at every pit-stop in New York, California and Washington, to open “a shop of love in the market of hate” may amount to political haymaking at a time of approaching general elections. But it was also posited in direct contradiction to the Modi government’s approach of willy-nilly dragging the acquiescent and the reluctant alike into its definition of ‘Amrit Kaal’.
From a standalone point of view, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US and his scheduled second address to a joint session of the US Congress are unprecedented for an Indian PM. Even Manmohan Singh, with his pronounced tilt towards the US that at times left Russia in the cold, could not pull off the feat in his decade-long stewardship of the country.
But realists see the frequent US-India professions of undying friendship as a partnership born out of compulsions on both sides. Washington views India as having been left with no option after Russia got embroiled in the Ukraine conflict. They feel the Chinese aggression on the LAC is a leaf out of Putin’s playbook on Ukraine. If Russia is punishing Kyiv for sidling strategically close to Washington, China is enacting a diluted version of the Ukraine conflict on the Indian LAC out of a similar motivation. In both cases, the aggrieved party has no option but to rely on the US to ward off military attempts on its sovereignty.
In case of the US, they point to its absence of allies in the region as Pakistan is not worth the attention, Myanmar is in China’s pocket, Bangladesh is not too keen to play the US game of encircling China and the entire Arab land has begun to hedge its bets between the US on one side and emerging nations, including India, Russia and China, on the other.
New defence roadmap
The visit of US Defence Secretary Austin Lloyd, part of President Joe Biden’s innermost coterie, should give some solace that PM Modi’s forthcoming US visit is not merely to explore the boundaries of how far both sides can expand their friendship. With Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Austin inked a new Roadmap for US-India Defence Industrial Cooperation. Its postulates show the long distance that India-US defence ties have travelled since 2001 when both sides set up a Defence Policy Group merely to carry out combined special operations training, small unit ground/air exercises, and training exercises with US Marines. These have blossomed into frequent and complex joint exercises that could potentially enable both sides to fight together, in case of need. But the 2023 Roadmap touches domains reserved for close allies. It promises to fast-track technology cooperation and co-production in areas such as air combat and land mobility systems; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; munitions; and the undersea domain.
As the US side noted, “This initiative aims to change the paradigm for cooperation between the US and Indian defence sectors, including a set of specific proposals that could provide India access to cutting-edge technologies and support India’s defence modernisation plans.”
In Washington, PM Modi will witness one of these — the final agreement to manufacture GE engines in India. The tortuous path taken by the deal — the MoU between GE and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited was signed 11 years back — reflects the incredible resistance and intense negotiations required to transfer one high-tech technology package. For strategic experts, this is not just a tool transfer exercise. They believe it will fast-forward plans to develop a true-blue fighter aircraft. From an employment perspective, especially in cutting-edge skill development, the considerable technology transfer will benefit about 500-600 Indian small and medium enterprises. There is a potentially huge windfall not just for GE. With fighter jet engines being manufactured in India, US companies using GE engines could be the hot favourites for the coming tender for multi-role fighters unless competitor France considerably sweetens its offer for Rafale fighters. With Russia almost out of the equation, PM Modi’s visit to France in July will reveal whether more Indian SMEs would reap the benefits of yet another momentous technology transfer pact as for GE engines.
And it’s not about defence alone. The reason why cities like Pune and Bengaluru emerged as hubs of fourth and fifth generation technology incubation and development was because of an existing eco-system of public sector companies active in advanced defence manufacturing. A similar hope springs up when a global major like GE decides to base itself in India.
The path to more technology transfer is still rocky. The two sides are yet to seal two crucial pacts in this regard — the Security of Supply Arrangement and a Reciprocal Defence Procurement Agreement. Pacts in the two decade-long defence relationship have been aplenty but the potential of some is yet to be realised.
Whether the two new pacts will bring to the table more technology transfers is an open question.
Prying away Russia
Despite the closeness in defence and security, and a huge immigrant Indian population in the US, ever since Bill Clinton’s path-breaking visit in 2000, the American effort has been primarily focussed on prying away Russia from India in the defence sector.
The Quad’s geo-economic response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been underwhelming and insufficient. The American hostility displayed to China from public forums does not correlate with the White House’s desperate urge to initiate high-level contacts with Zhongnanhai, that houses the offices of the Chinese Communist Party leadership. India was completely cut out from the secret negotiations that led to a Trilateral Security Partnership between Australia, the UK and the US to make nuclear submarines for the Asia Pacific — the exact location where India is expected to be a major security partner.
Despite the warm avuncularity displayed by Biden and European leaders towards Modi, the past months have been a tale of a harrowing wait for visas to Europe and the US for urgent travellers from India. The sense of being treated by the US as the ‘other’ is heightened when even the local elite with high net-worth applying for short-term visas are judged with the same scales as a potential ‘over-stayer’.
The challenge for both sides, at a time of hardening of geo-strategic circumstances, will be to maintain their autonomy in foreign relations while stepping up defence cooperation, as also to transform a morganatic marriage into one that offers dignified mutuality.
Indian PMs who have addressed US Congress
- On June 22, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have the unique distinction of being the only Indian leader to address the US Congress twice.
- It all began in 1949, when India’s first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, addressed the US Congress.
- There then followed a three-decade gap after which Rajiv Gandhi spoke at Capitol Hill in 1985.
- Nearly 10 years later, he was followed by PV Narasimha Rao in 1994, Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2000 and Manmohan Singh in 2005.
- PM Modi’s first address to the US Congress was in 2016.
- While prime ministerial trips to the US have been numerous, only one President — S Radhakrishnan — has been to the US, way back in 1963.
Expatriate Indians excited
US President Joe Biden confessed that he was receiving a large number of requests for the state dinner he is hosting for PM Narendra Modi. “I think that is a good thing. That shows the excitement of the Prime Minister being here on June 22,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in response to President Joe Biden’s observation made to Prime Minister Modi when they last met on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Hiroshima.
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