Central & South Asia

A Cheat Sheet for Obama on Modi’s US Visit


Wikimedia Commons

September 25, 2014 20:02 EDT

Obama needs to disregard Washington’s India experts and woo Modi, who will achieve success with Indian Diaspora and US business.

The authors of this article have read with amusement the garbage being churned out by pundits in Washington DC. They tend to be ignorant, monolingual, whiter than white so-called India experts. An odd coconut, the term used for anglicized Indians who barely speak any Indian language, is thrown into the picture to make Washington seem more inclusive. Washington pundits have been preaching to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to build personal relations with US President Barack Obama, reach out to Capitol Hill and deepen political, economic and security ties. Obama could do well to ignore the whole lot of them because these pundits simply do not know what they are talking about.

The US State Department and the White House completely misread the Indian elections earlier this year. They did not anticipate Modi’s victory and failed to rescind the visa ban the US government imposed on him. The American media, including The New York Times and Foreign Affairs, carried a one-sided vilification campaign against Modi. For a country that is fanatical about markets, it is strange that Uncle Sam supported a corrupt dynasty that imposed socialism on the country and allied with the Soviet Union for decades. Even Wharton, a leading business school, canceled its invitation to Modi.

Conspiracy theories mention US support for the Nehru dynasty. Some believe it does so to keep India weak. Others believe this support may be based on the fact that Sonia Gandhi, the heir to the Nehru throne, is white. The reality is that the US is ignorant about India and the Ivy League elites who live in Washington’s echo chambers are more comfortable with courtiers of the Nehru dynasty who boast of an Oxford or Harvard education, purchased from the coffers they filled by robbing taxpayers. Rustic speakers of native languages such as Modi are too plebian and uncouth to engage with and are invariably ignored if not insulted.

Where is Modi Coming From?

Obama has to understand that just as he is the first African American president of the US, Modi is the first Indian prime minister who comes from a backward trading caste. Unlike Obama, he does not have the benefit of an elite legal education, but began as an entrepreneur selling tea by a train station. Furthermore, Modi comes from Gujarat, long the seaboard of India and the home of the country’s savviest traders. It was a Gujarati pilot who enabled Vasco da Gama to sail to India. So, it is important to remember that business, trade, commerce and enterprise comprise Gujarat’s DNA. Modi is culturally inclined to be business-friendly, and the huge Gujarati expatriate community will welcome the first prime minister from its state deliriously.

Modi won the elections by promising infrastructure, growth and jobs to a country where more than 50% of the population is under 25. Rising aspirations and sky high expectations have piled the pressure on the prime minister to deliver. He wants to build infrastructure, attract projects and get everyone to “make in India” as he declared in his stirring speech on August 15, the day India gained independence. Modi has inherited slowing growth, rising inflation and truly awful banks with a ton of bad debts on their books. He needs foreign investment in droves. That is why he went to Japan and welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping. Under Modi, the business of India will be business.

The US State Department and the White House completely misread the Indian elections earlier this year. They did not anticipate Modi’s victory and failed to rescind the visa ban the US government imposed on him. The American media, including The New York Times and Foreign Affairs, carried a one-sided vilification campaign against Modi. 

Modi’s main focus will be attracting US companies to invest in India. He will lay out the red carpet for US business. American companies are experiencing record earnings and are looking to expand in other markets. India, with its youthful aspiring population, presents a most attractive proposition. Already, Modi has set a scorching pace in approving infrastructure and industry projects. Under Modi, India’s central government has become far more transparent and efficient. He will facilitate more trade and investment. The prime minister’s goal is generating jobs and he wants US companies to set up shop in India.

What Will Modi Do in the US?

Too many Americans believe that Modi wants them to “rehabilitate” him or to make him “respectable.” This is delusional. Modi believes that if he is strong and powerful enough, the Americans will come around. So, whilst he will be unfailingly charming, Modi will focus on enhancing his “soft power” by reaching out to the Indian Diaspora through events such as his Madison Square Garden address. He calculates that if he wins the support of Indians in the US, then they will pressure their representatives in Washington to change tune on India.

Modi will make it clear to Washington that the balance of power is shifting from the Atlantic to BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — who have already formed a bank to rival the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, both of which are exclusive white clubs. He will not make any political concessions to the US because Obama is not in a position to make large investments in India.

Modi arrives in the US on a strong footing. He has suspended dialogue with Pakistan and asserted India’s thin red lines. This has won him admiration. Modi’s US visit is a personal vindication after years of being shunned by the Americans. In contrast to Modi, Obama is in a weak position regarding foreign policy, in general, and India, in particular. The Middle East continues to sap US energy, making it impossible for the Obama administration to focus on India. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to New Delhi was a disaster because he appeared to be underprepared and distracted. The pressure is on Obama to put Washington’s best foot forward because Modi will be unfailingly pleasant but drive a hard bargain.

Modi is Different But Has His Compulsions

It is important for Obama to understand that India has its own tradition of political philosophy and ancient republics that go back to 6th century BC and beyond. Modi sees himself in that tradition and is jettisoning the Nehru model. Modi is arriving after casting Nehru’s beloved Soviet-inspired Planning Commission into the dustbin of history. This is a seismic change in the way India has functioned since its independence in 1947.

In Western terms, Modi’s economic beliefs would be termed as closer to classical liberalism as compared to other Indian politicians. He wants nations to keep doing business despite their differences. The US is upset with India because it threw a spoke in the wheel of the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks. India was not happy with the progress on food security issues. The US and western Europe have long manipulated emerging economies on most trade measures. The declarations on free trade are invariably benign but the fine print too often hurts poorer nations. These nations cannot afford a battery of expensive lawyers and end up getting manipulated by their erstwhile colonial masters. Hence, emerging economies are wary of trade and the WTO.

India’s spiking of the WTO talks confused Americans because Modi was supposed to be pro-business. He was even raising limits on foreign direct investment in defense. So, what was going on? The answer is simple: American presidents have to placate the corn lobby because primaries begin in Iowa. Similarly, Indian prime ministers have to protect farmers who decide the fate of any election in a still largely rural country. What happened was that Indian farming interests trumped the US farm lobby and the WTO talks collapsed. Obama, Kerry and their underlings have to get over their disappointment. The laws of electoral politics anywhere in the world are cast in iron.

Cut Out the Hype and Roll Up Your Sleeves

Modi is a bachelor who lives to work. He is notorious for working endless hours and being highly disciplined. Obama backed Manmohan Singh, the former Indian prime minister, who was a puppet of the Nehru family. Trained at Oxford, he was socially smooth and charmed the US president. Hyperbole was a hallmark of Singh’s foreign policy and he had a reputation of being awestruck by Western leaders. He was derided in India for his weakness but was a reassuring figure abroad. Washington has to understand that a Modi-led India will be more assertive and lose a bit of the cultural deference the US has become used to.

Modi speaks in cadences that the US has not heard before. He acts very much like the CEO, driving projects and expecting deliverables. He is the most charismatic Indian leader in decades and will not kowtow to anyone, least of all any US leader. Yet, Modi is a pragmatist who believes in the ancient Indian philosopher Kautilya’s idea of quid pro quo in inter-state relations. If he wants to strike deals with India, Obama needs to give Modi offers that are too sweet to resist.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Pete Souza / Wikimedia Commons

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