The Hindu: The confirmation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States means two things: that Mr. Modi is keen to extend his summit-level approach to bilateral ties past the subcontinent to the U.S. as well, and that U.S. President Obama wants to patch up the damage to Indo-US ties, enough to break with US protocol for a second year in a row for an Indian Prime Minister.
For years, U.S. officials have discouraged bilateral visits by world leaders dove-tailed with the UN General Assembly session in September. This, they feel, puts the US in an uncomfortable spot, as many others of the 200-odd UN countries would try to make a beeline for Washington before or after visiting the UN in New York. Last year, the rare exception they made was for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had hoped to meet Mr. Obama in his last visit to the US as PM. Till the last minute, however, officials in Washington had been unable to confirm a time-slot for Dr. Singh, and an expected luncheon between the two leaders was truncated to a working “bag lunch” along with the delegations. Even so, the meeting left many others who had asked, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif disgruntled (he visited Washington a month after his UN appearance).
This year, a very different circumstance has necessitated the US exception being repeated for Prime Minister Modi. The last year has seen a low in Indo-US relations that rivals Cold-war era ties over the Khobragade affair. Not only did Ministry officials and Indian diplomats in the US feel outraged by the manner of her arrest, they felt angered by the lack of advance warning on the case. Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh was particularly aggrieved, given that she had flown out of Washington a day before Ms. Khobragade’s arrest, without any inkling of what was to follow. Added to that was the US Embassy in Delhi’s suspected role in spiriting out the Richards family, and a total breakdown of trust ensued, that led to tough measures against the embassy including the revocation of key privileges for diplomats. “We felt these actions were inconsistent with our expectations from what we consider a friendly country,” FS Singh told a TV channel in April, “But we decided it was time to put it behind us.”
Despite that decision, however, the Indo-US relationship has yet to get that ‘reset button’ pushed. Pending decisions on several deals, including on FDI in retail, nuclear business, and defence deals await resolution. India’s push for H1B visas, and outsourcing contracts have been rebuffed in the past years.
The elephant in the room is the US’s cancellation of Mr. Modi’s visa in 2005, and persistent refusal to reconsider the policy until Mr. Modi was practically a shoe-in for the Prime Minister’s job and many have wondered how long it will be before the two sides can return to the robust dialogue they had pre-2014.
A visit by Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal this weekend is expected to get a few of those conversations started with the Modi government, although senior officials are yet to confirm time with her. Indian Ambassador to the U.S. S Jaishankar, who was tipped for a bigger role in the PMO is also flying down for consultations in South Block. And some of the ice may be broken at an event at the Prime Minister’s residence — the release of a book on economic reforms on Sunday. The book, Getting India Back On Track: An Action Agenda for Reform, has been authored by Ashley Tellis, Trevor Reece and Bibek Debroy. Tellis, who is now at the Carnegie Endowment, once served at the US embassy in Delhi, and is now considered an insider once again in Washington State Department circles for his India expertise.
With his decision to accept the US President’s invitation for end-september, Mr. Modi is also heralding a busy period of international travel for him. In mid-July he will travel to the BRICS summit in Brazil. In September he heads to the UN and to Washington, while in November he is expected to attend the G-20 in Brisbane, Australia. Many Team Modi members have guessed his first bilateral stop with be Japan, that was amongst the first countries to invite him.
In between, he is slated to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping to Delhi, while Australian PM Tony Abbott has expressed an interest in a flying visit to tie up and possibly announce an agreement on Uranium sale, and a nuclear partnership that has been inthe works for years. But official sources maintain, the immediate neighbourhood will remain the new government’s focus, with the SAARC summit in Kathmandu planned in November this year.