The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has won an unprecedented victory in India’s sixteenth general election. The scope of its victory ensures that the prime minister apparent, Narendra Modi, will not need to pay much heed to the sentiments of his coalition allies in the conduct of the country’s domestic or foreign policies. How will this leeway affect Indo-US relations? The question is far from trivial. Since the halcyon days of President Obama’s visit to India in 2010 the relationship has stalled best and is in the doldrums at worst. A range of issues both trivial and substantial have dogged it since then. These range from the arrest and detention of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, over her treatment of a maid, to matters pertaining to the protection of intellectual property rights in India. To compound matters, the US has yet to select and confirm new ambassador even though Nancy Powell, the incumbent had resigned as far back as April of this year.
Any discussion of the future of Indo-US relations must necessarily grasp a particular nettle; will Mr. Modi set aside his sense of resentment and anger over the US denial of a visa in 2005 over his putative role in the anti-Muslim pogrom that had went across much of the state of Gujarat during his tenure as the chief minister? It is possible to argue that Mr. Modi, who had taken serious umbrage over the refusal of a visa will now seek to keep the US at an arms length. Certainly, at the time of the incident he and his supporters had expressed much irritation with the decision.
In the past couple of months, however, as it became increasingly evident that his campaign was gathering steam, the US government had reached out to him. Now that he is about to assume India’s highest elected office the White House has made it clear that he would be issued a visa should he choose to visit the US.
The key question, of course, is whether or not Mr. Modi will accept this invitation and simply overlook the past slight that he had to endure. It is difficult to provide a definitive answer to this question. However, there are a number of reasons to believe that he will not allow the shadow of the past to linger over the future of Indo-US relations. At a personal level, Mr. Modi has already demonstrated that he is a pragmatist. His approach to economic development in his home state of Gujarat was quite non-ideological. As long as investors expressed interest in the state he made the famously slothful bureaucracy act with much dispatch.
Given this very practical streak in his personality and the current straits of the Indian economy it is most unlikely that he will shun the US. A host of bilateral economic issues are currently hanging fire, India needs US investment and Indian business houses are keen on working with a range of American counterparts. Given his closeness to significant segments of the Indian corporate sector it is most unlikely that he will ignore their pro-American sentiments.
Yet economic and business concerns alone will not drive his policies toward the United States. Obviously, in these early days it is difficult to predict who will emerge as his key foreign policy advisers. Regardless of whom he brings on board it is most unlikely that he will ignore at least two compelling security challenges that confront India. The first stems from the US and allied drawdown in Afghanistan. With a reduced foreign security footprint in the country there is every reason to believe that Pakistan’s security establishment, which has long looked askance on the Indian presence there, will do all in its power to dislodge India. To this end they are likely to stoke the dying embers of the insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The only state that can exert any meaningful influence or curb Pakistan’s propensity to meddle in Kashmir is the United States. Refusing to engage the US on this critical matter would simply be at India’s peril.
Pakistan’s proclivity to stir up trouble is not the only security challenge that Mr. Modi will face. Over the past several years despite an agreement to avoid incidents along the Himalayan border the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has not only expanded its claims to disputed areas but has steadily conducted military probes at various strategic locations. Mr. Modi, while on the campaign trail, had made clear that he had little patience for the PRC’s efforts to alter the territorial status quo. Given that the US has growing concerns about the direction of the PRC’s rise in Asia, that it has sought to reassure increasingly fretful allies in much of the region. Given India’s own misgivings about the PRC Mr. Modi again should be inclined to make common cause with the US.
Obviously, it is impossible to state with any certainty if these practical motivations will shape Mr. Modi’s policy preferences toward the US. However, given that he spent no small amount of time, energy and effort on the campaign trail emphasizing the need to jump start India’s faltering economy ignoring the US on the basis of a personal pique, however irksome, is simply not a desirable option. Nor, for that matter, can he ignore the two most urgent threats to India’s national security where consultation, engagement and policy coordination with the US could yield significant benefits. Past differences aside, it is reasonable to surmise that once he tackles the immediate demands of Cabinet formation and key bureaucratic appointments, he will seek to forge a working relationship with the US.
Profesor Sumit Ganguly is the Director of the Center on American and Global Security in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.