Displaying an unsentimental, hard-headed selfinterest, PM Narendra Modi wasted no time in visiting the US after assuming office, putting aside previous controversies as he grasped the importance of the bilateral relationship and the potential for some smart image management.
Not unlike his predecessor Manmohan Singh, the new PM understood that much of India’s aspirations for a global role as an economic and military power would remain unfulfilled without accessing US technology and finance.
Modi managed to hit it off with US President Obama — a feat that still puzzles many (New York Times called it the most unlikely friendship Obama could have struck with any world leader) — and this was crucial to lifting ties.
The bemusement is in good measure due to the alleged contrast between Obama’s commitment to minority rights and dissent and Modi’s purported moorings in the “rightwing paramilitary” RSS. But Modi side-stepped stereotypes and connected with Obama on issues like climate change and China and leveraged his big parliamentary majority.
An oped in the Washington Post last year declared that trade, investment and technology would be the bedrock of a partnership for the 21st century to harmonise India’s ambitious development agenda while sustaining US growth.
In his first visit, Modi used the Madison Square event to tap overseas Indian sentiment and the enthusiastic reception was duly noted by global media. It was an effective strategy to counter activists raising human rights issues.
The PM’s warm relationship with Obama was crucial for his plans to push Indian interests ranging from Pakistan, China, technology, investments, defence, climate change to admission to the NSG.Bilateral ties with China would always be difficult, not the least because economic and military muscle gave the Chinese a sense of superiority. The US was essential to India’s efforts to seek a more eq uitable deal from China.
Years of tough sanctions related to dual use technology had hurt Indian science and industry with even improving monsoon predictions becoming a labourious task in the absence of sophisticated computers and satellite data.The relationship gained momentum under Manmohan Singh with the nuclear deal being concluded during UPA-1, but ties lost steam in his second term.
Though his win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections — and the decimation of Congress -gave him huge legitimacy, Modi still needed to shake off the shadow the Gujarat riots cast on his career at home and more particularly abroad. Four visits to the US have helped him do that in large measure.