Narendra Modi and Barack Obama have little in common beyond the unlikeliness of their ascent to power. The son of a tea seller in Gujarat and of a single mother in Hawaii
each came to politics through the grassroots
of their political parties and rose on waves of
popular support. Each embodies the promise
of democracy, showing that old norms in politics can be changed and that any citizen can
rise to lead the nation.
Though Mr Modi came from his country’s
right and Mr Obama from the left, both
came to the ultimate insiders’ game of politics as outsiders. When they meet,expecta-tions will be exceedingly high.
The best way to meet those expectations?
Each leader should simply focus on his own
priorities for his own country and explore
where Indo-US cooperation can help. This
can guide a top-down prioritization for both
governments. Because Mr Modi and Mr
Obama have extremely complementary
objectives — middle class growth; good governance; managing conflict and terrorism;
reducing violence and discrimination based
on race, religion, gender; sustainable energy
and water for future generations — this
approach alone can make Indo-US partnership into one of the most consequential of
the 21 st century by 2020.
In fact, by 2020, the US and India can be
partners in confronting climate change,
US minds can be collaborating through
national labs on breakthrough innovations
in science and health and our space agencies
can be working together on the future of
We can be actively addressing South Asia’s chronic lack of
connectivity, investing east with the Indo-Pacific Economic
Corridor and northwest with the New Silk Road initiative.
The potential is great, and successive US and Indian
administrations have planted the seeds for this progress.
On defense and security, India is concerned first with
regional issues: The rise of China as a strategic competitor,
the threat of terrorism, a path toward confidence building
with neighboring Pakistan, and helping Afghanistan avoid a
return to war and instability. The United States shares all of
these concerns and wants India to be a power capable of
handing security issues in its own neighborhood.
The US also wants a share of India’s growing defense
spending and to share burdens with India by jointly developing capabilities that both countries will need in the
future. Mr Modi’s decision to increase foreign investment
caps in the defense sector from 26 percent to 49 percent
and Washington’s offers for specific co-production and co-development opportunities show that both sides want to
move forward on defense and security cooperation.
Prime Minister Modi and President Obama could drive
progress by specifying the two or three key initiatives
they want prioritized, and this should include the development of a new 10-year framework for defense and
Mr Modi wants to bring power to every Indian village –
that means reaching some 300 million Indians who currently do not have electricity. He also wants to mitigate the
dangers of climate change for India – from the impact on
coastal cities to the melting of Himalayan glaciers. His
administration has already taken action that can revive a
stalled US–India partnership on solar energy by dropping a
controversial anti-dumping duty on solar panel imports
from the US (as well as China, Taiwan and Malaysia).
President Obama, who is driven to make progress on climate change during his final years in office, may find a willing partner in Prime Minister Modi so long as the demands
put on India will not derail his economic agenda.
For India, climate volatility, resource shortages, and pollu-
tion are already pressing problems. India is on track to
become the world’s largest coal importer in about a decade
and is also one of the world’s largest green-
house gas emitters. The United States and
India can and should lead together in key
areas, like a global agreement on reduction of
hydro fluorocarbons, or HFCs, and mitigating
other greenhouse gases, for example by coop-
erating to make new buildings in Indian cities
In addition, the United States and India
can cooperate on community resilience
against climate impacts, particularly with
regards to sea-level rise, frequent flooding,
and extreme weather. Mr Modi and Mr
Obama can direct their governments to find
specific areas of possible bilateral cooperation like the solar innovation already underway and agree to find areas of cooperation in
international climate negotiations starting
this month to shape a new international climate agreement by late 2015.
US and Indian cooperation on economic
issues is chronically mired in disagreement
and frustration even as bilateral trade and
investment booms. The leaders will have to
talk frankly about concerns. India is focused
on US visa constraints, which are stuck along
with any broader immigration reform in the
United States. The US is concerned that India’s
tough stance on food security could derail the
World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation
Agreement and that issues like retroactive tax-
ation persist in the Modi administration.
When Prime Minister Modi and President
Obama meet, they should look beyond these
issues to focus on increasing bilateral trade by
reducing barriers and encouraging investment
in each other’s economies. The bottom line for
both will be: Can we do things that help create
good middle class jobs in both countries? And
that’s what they should task to their teams.
As outsiders, Mr Modi and Mr Obama have a
chance to break through old habits and old
limitations. Mr Modi is not burdened being ‘non-aligned’ –
he’s a straight up nationalist and not looking for an alliance,
but he’s also not insecure about working with America. Mr
Obama is not worried about India as nuclear power and
welcomes its growing military strength.
Though they are at different points on a similar political
trajectory, with President Obama’s honeymoon long over
and Prime Minister Modi’s just beginning, both came into
office by connecting directly with voters and promising
hope. Both have tough economic times, with large numbers
of their citizens sidelined by national progress.
By focusing on their own priorities for their own citizens
and exploring how the Indo-US partnership can help with
those priorities, Mr Modi and Mr Obama have a chance to
push Indo-US ties into a new era of cooperation.
Vikram J Singh – formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary of
Defense for South and Southeast Asian Affairs in the
Obama administration — is currently Vice President for
National Security and International Policy at the Center for
The bottom line for both
leaders, feels Vikram J Singh,
will be: Can we do things that
help create good middle class
jobs in both countries?
Outsiders can make
a great partnership
India Abroad October 3, 2014
THE MAGAZINE M3
‘When Modi and Obama meet, expectations will be exceedingly high. The best way to meet those expectations? Each leader should simply focus on his own priorities for his own country and explore where Indo-US cooperation can help… Mr Modi and Mr Obama have extremely complementary objectives -- middle class growth; good governance; managing conflict and terrorism…’ GUIDO BERGMANN/BUNDESREGIERUNG