Shadow Government

Can Obama Patch Things Up With Modi? It Might Save His Asia Pivot.

President Obama has been subjected to substantial criticism for his handling of foreign policy since he took office on Jan. 20, 2009. An important complaint has been his failure to capitalize on the breakthrough in Indo-American relations begun with President Clinton’s wildly popular visit to India in 2000 and cemented by President George W. Bush’s ...


President Obama has been subjected to substantial criticism for his handling of foreign policy since he took office on Jan. 20, 2009. An important complaint has been his failure to capitalize on the breakthrough in Indo-American relations begun with President Clinton’s wildly popular visit to India in 2000 and cemented by President George W. Bush’s bold decision to adjust U.S. nonproliferation policy in order to expand India’s role as an ally and emerging power on the global stage. President Obama started off with some fanfare when he hosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for a state visit in November 2009, but subsequently adopted a Pakistan-centric vision for U.S. policy. Admittedly, exploiting the openings made by his two predecessors was not made easier by the dysfunction with India’s political leadership (captured in uncomfortable detail in a recent book by Singh’s former media advisor, Sanjaya Baru, The Accidental Prime Minister). 2013 proved to be a particularly tumultuous year, marked by an embarrassing contretemps over the actions of an Indian diplomat in New York, India clamping down on American perquisites in New Delhi, and the hasty departure of the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi.

With a new prime minister in office, however, an opportunity presents itself. When Narendra Modi was elected, I suggested in a Shadow Government post that three steps ought to be taken to get the relationship back on track. The first was to invite Modi to Washington following his attendance at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting. President Obama has done this and the summit is about to take place. The second was to appoint a new ambassador with gravitas and personal access to the president. Richard Verma has just been named and brings to the job sophistication with Congress as a former aide to Harry Reid and experience within Obama’s inner circle, both as legislative lead for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and during Obama’s early campaign days in 2008. The appointment is in some ways similar to Obama’s earlier appointment of Gary Locke as ambassador to China. The thinking seems to be that by sending a son of the soil, we demonstrate the opportunities children of immigrants have in the United States as well as the respect in which they are held regardless of their immigrant background. The third suggestion was to consult India about the endgame in Afghanistan. To avoid a shameful flight from Kabul akin to the disastrous British departure from the subcontinent in 1947, we should seek Indian advice and assistance in ensuring that civil war and widespread violence do not follow us out the door as we leave Afghanistan.

At first blush, one might think that Modi and Obama do not make for good partners. Modi has been accused — and the Bush administration accepted the accusation by denying him a visa to visit the United States several years ago — of at least overlooking and at worst abetting Hindu mob assaults on Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Another recent book, a favorable biography of Modi (Andy Marino, Narendra Modi: A Political Biography), calls for a more careful look at the facts on the ground to address first what is portrayed as a media and Congress Party-led rush to judgment, and second an incomplete assessment of the role of external actors in fomenting the violence. Given President Obama’s predilection for humanitarian intervention, this could look like a significant stumbling block. However, in looking at the characters and histories of the two men, there is reason to believe that a personal bond could well be formed that could create a basis for a rejuvenation of U.S.-India ties in the last two years of Obama’s presidency. Such a renewed partnership could leave Afghanistan much better off and put meat on the bones of the deservedly maligned "pivot" to Asia, touted so much two years ago but now overshadowed by the Syrian, Iraqi, and Ukrainian crises.

The two men share interesting similarities. Modi is remembered by classmates as having a gift for rhetoric and debate; Obama’s successful entry to American politics came with a powerful speech delivered 10 years ago at the Democratic Party national convention. Modi is described as solitary and aloof — he seems to see himself as clinical but not cold; Obama’s cool demeanor is by now legendary. Modi is adamantly opposed to caste politics; Obama began political life with a desire to be a post-partisan leader. Modi, despite his background with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), sees himself as highly pragmatic and not ideological; for his part, Obama has resisted calls for more extreme positions, seeming also to favor pragmatics over ideology. Finally, both owe their successful rise to national leadership not to being anointed by their respective party leadership, but by having widespread grass roots appeal.

Their personal histories may also draw them together. Modi took an independent path away from his father, with whom he had little contact throughout his adult life; shortly after his birth, Obama’s father left the family to return to Kenya. Modi’s mother lived long while Obama’s died young, but both apparently draw inspiration from their relationships with their mothers. They both have youthful experience behind the counter, so to speak — Modi as a child sold tea on trains passing through his hometown while Obama scooped ice cream for Baskin Robbins in Hawaii. These factors may seem ephemeral, but personal histories can sometimes glue disparate personalities together.

Personalities cannot eliminate or overcome difficult issues, of course. A prominent issue is the continuing saga of the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal, which is now beached on the rocks of India’s liability law. American companies are extremely reluctant to take the risks associated with local management of a sophisticated nuclear power plant. The recent agreement though, between Gilead Sciences and seven Indian drug makers, demonstrates that difficult business thickets can be navigated with sufficient patience and innovative thinking — an area in which Modi prides himself. Differing approaches to Iran continue to dog the relations, while disagreements about India’s actions in the World Trade Organization are not resolved. The Afghanistan end game poses its own set of difficulties, though Indian and American differences may in the end not be great. All of that said, however, there have been positive developments as well. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s recent visit to New Delhi enhanced strong military-to-military relations; Modi’s interest in foreign direct investment under the "Make in India" headline offers new prospects for American business and diversification away from the mixed blessing of manufacturing in a police state; Prime Minister Modi’s successful visit to Japan and his close personal ties with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offer an example for how to expand our own ties; Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s visit to New Delhi and the agreement to supply India with uranium could not have happened without the change on nonproliferation policy; and India’s "Look East" policy comports well with Obama’s interest in and recent trip to Southeast Asia.

With Prime Minister Modi’s impending visit, opportunity is knocking. Whether under the rubric of the pivot to Asia, expansion of American business, development of a foreign policy grand strategy, or something else, President Obama can make the visit a lynchpin, if not necessarily the centerpiece, in a revived U.S. security strategy and thus a revived foreign policy.

Neil Joeck is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.