As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels to the US, it’s worth putting this moment in the India-US rela- tionship in perspective. A decade-and-a-half ago, there
were US sanctions on India. Today, there’s
a reason that ‘the relationship is broader
and deeper than ever before’ has become
Cooperation between the two countries
ranges from India buying C-130 aircraft
from an American company to the US
Centers for Disease Control helping their
Indian counterpart set up an Epidemic
Intelligence Service. Bilateral trade has
grown, with the US having become
India’s largest trading partner in terms
of goods and services, and with Vice
President Biden stating that the goal
should be a five-fold surge.
Two-way investment has also
increased. Bilateral defense trade has
gone from almost nothing to $10 billion in recent times; over the last three
years, India bought more defense
equipment (in dollar terms) from the
US than from any other country. In
addition, in a few years, US liquefied
natural gas exports to India are scheduled to begin; India is already importing US coal.
The development of this broader and
deeper India-US relationship has been
bipartisan. In the US, it has involved
Democratic and Republican administrations (led by Presidents Bill Clinton,
George W Bush and Barack Obama)
and both sides of the aisle on C apitol
In India, both Bharatiya Janata
Party- and Congress party-led governments have overseen the expansion of
the partnership. The relationship has
also gone beyond the federal government level, with state and local governments engaging with each other.
Interest and interaction on the part of
the business on the two sides has also
grown, as have people-to-people ties.
In the US, many in the executive and legislative branches
of government, in the private sector, and in the Diaspora
have seen the election of the majority government in India
led by Mr Modi as an opportunity to take the relationship
to the next level. Mr Obama, for whom the relationship can
be a key legacy issue, has said he would like to see a ‘strong,
developed, and inclusive India that actively engages with
the global community,’ which Mr Modi has promised.
The administration has repeatedly asserted that even
though India and the US will not always agree, on balance
India’s rise will be a good thing for the US and for the
world — and that, therefore, the US will support this rise.
In the private sector, there is hope that there will be a
better business climate in India and that the new Indian
government will tackle economic reforms that will, in turn,
reinvigorate the Indian economy. There are concerns about
some recent signals that the Indian government has sent
and whether some political and bureaucratic obstacles will
prove insurmountable, but ahead of Mr Modi’s visit, the
focus has been on opportunities.
The sense that there is an opportunity — that this is a key
moment — has meant that bilateral engagement has been
intense since Mr Modi has taken office, with visits to India
by numerous US officials, including the Secretaries of
Commerce, Defense and State, the Deputy National
Security Advisor for International Economics, the Deputy
Secretary of State, and other senior officials from the
Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, State and Treasury
departments. Mr Modi has also met with Congressional
and American private sector leaders.
Overall, there are opportunities for further cooperation in
fields ranging from economics to energy, climate change to
cyber-governance, counter-terrorism to counter-prolifera-tion, defense to development, health to higher education,
security to space, and immigration to the international
order. The opportunities lie not just in the bilateral realm,
but in the regional and global ones too.
During Mr Modi’s visit, the two governments are likely to
focus on a few agenda items, including economic and
defense ties, as well the global and regional situations —
particularly looking both east and west from India. This
will also be the first opportunity for Mr Modi and Mr
Obama to interact face-to-face — a meeting that could
potentially set the tone for the next two years.
In addition, this visit will see Mr Modi and his officials
engage with individuals beyond the administration, including those from the US Congress, the private sector, as well
as the Diaspora. It’ll give the prime minister an opportunity to outline his internal and external plans, as well as his
ambitions for the India-US relationship.
The Obama administration is rolling out the red carpet
for Mr Modi. There is realization that it is crucial not just
to get the substance right, but also the
optics. There are at least four reasons for
this: First, to signal that the administration
considers India to be important, despite its
other foreign policy and domestic preoccu-
Second, understanding that there might
still be questions left over from the past
revocation of Mr Modi’s visa, to convey that
the US respects the electoral choice
made by the largest democracy in the
Third, there is recognition that Mr
Modi has defied expectations and the
advice of some to hold the US at arms’
length. Instead, seeing that the US can
be an indispensable partner to achieve
his strategic and economic goals, he has
reciprocated the US desire to deepen
the bilateral relationship.
Fourth, there is an understanding
that at this moment the US is not alone
in wooing India — evident from the
fact that the Indian prime minister’s
visit will follow the high-profile, heavy-on-optics visits by Mr Modi to Japan
and by Chinese President Xi Jinping to
India — and that comparisons will
inevitably be made.
There are obstacles ahead for the
India-US relationship. There is a
potential for drift, given that both sides
have other foreign policy and domestic
priorities competing for attention and
limited capacity to deal with them.
Differences will not disappear, includ-
ing on global, regional and functional
issues (global trade negotiations,
Pakistan, and investment climates).
Then there are the difficulties of deal-
ing with another democracy, with dif-
ferences playing out publicly, the media
analyzing every step, and tricky domes-
tic politics shaping the operating envi-
ronment. Furthermore, the diversified
nature of the relationship — with
numerous stakeholders, including in
the private sector — means that there
is a limit to what the Obama adminis-
tration and Modi government can
Finally, there are the related dangers of disillusionment
and dilution of the other country’s importance.
Expectations are high, albeit more realistic this time
around than a decade or so ago, and they create opportunity. But left unmet, they can also lead to disillusionment.
Managing expectations — without lowering them to the
point that no one cares about the relationship — will be
one challenge. Another will be meeting expectations.
In the US, this will require figuring out how the system
can work with regards to a country that is neither adversary nor ally, but a good friend. In India, this will require
Mr Modi to deliver on his campaign promises of growth,
governance and getting things done.
On both sides, it’ll require political and bureaucratic
leadership and attention, not just before and during Mr
Modi’s visit, but beyond it as well. Finally, sustained forward movement in the relationship will require effort
beyond government, with those who consider the relationship important continuing to be engaged and to be
involved in explaining why the relationship is worth it.
Tanvi Madan is Director of The India Project and a Fellow
in Foreign Policy at The Brookings Institution in
Washington, DC. You can follow her on Twitter at
‘Two-way investment between the US and India has increased. Bilateral defense trade has gone from almost nothing to $10 billion in recent times; over the last three years, India bought more defense equipment in dollar terms from the US than from any other country.’
There is a potential for drift, warns
Tanvi Madan, given that both sides
have other foreign policy and domestic
priorities competing for attention