Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington sealed a transformation in US-Indian relations, and in his own status, writes Justin Huggler
When Narendra Modi addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington this month, it marked the culmimation of a remarkable turnaround – both in the life of the Indian Prime Minister, and in his country’s relations with the US.
Until just over two years ago, Modi couldn’t even get into the US. Declared persona non grata over his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, he suffered the worst humiliation of his career in 2005, when he was refused a visa and prevented from travelling to New York to address a rally of the Indian diaspora. For the best part of a decade, he was shut out of the US and Europe. He remains the only person ever refused a US visa for ‘severe violations of religious freedom’.
But all that was forgotten in Washington in June. More than a dozen members of Congress lined up to escort Modi into the chamber. His speech was received with nine standing ovations – each assiduously counted by the Indian press. Being Prime Minister of the world’s seventh-largest economy opens a few doors, it seems. But the change goes far deeper than that: the truth is that in Modi’s two years in power, India’s relationship with the US has gone through as dramatic a transformation as his own.
The break with the past was clearest when the Prime Minister spoke about the military alliance between the two countries. In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi, the first Indian leader to address Congress, read the assembled senators and representatives a lecture on why India supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan — even as the US was arming the Afghan mujahedin against it.
Modi, by contrast, opened by saying he had been to visit the US military cemetery at Arlington, the ‘final resting place of many brave soldiers of this great land’ where he had ‘honoured their courage and sacrifice for the ideals of freedom and democracy’. When it came to Afghanistan, he praised the US for its own military presence there. ‘Your contribution in keeping the region safe and secure is deeply appreciated even beyond [Afghanistan’s borders],’ he said, ‘a commitment to rebuild a peaceful, and stable and prosperous Afghanistan our shared objective.’
The mutual suspicions of the past are gone, Cold War alignments forgotten. Barack Obama has declared the US-India relationship ‘one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century’.
In some ways it is surprising it took the world’s two largest democracies this long. Modi was at pains to stress what they share in his Washington speech. ‘The threads of freedom and liberty form a strong bond between our two democracies,’ he said, citing the influence of Mahatma Gandhi on Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. ‘Our nations may have been shaped by differing histories, cultures, and faiths, yet our belief in democracy for our nations and liberty for our countrymen is common.’
But the truth is that it was not until after Modi’s election in 2014 that a genuine warmth began to emerge in US-India relations. Bill Clinton charmed India in 2000, but a year later George W Bush turned back to the old alliance with Pakistan for his ‘war on terror’, and the US and India remained wary friends at best.
In large part the transformation is down to Modi. Since taking power he has thrown himself into cultivating relations with Washington: this was his third visit to the US in just two years. It’s almost as if he was trying to make up for lost time, and it has paid spectacular dividends. A day before his address to Congress, the US named India as a ‘major defence partner’, making it eligible to buy some of the most sophisticated American weaponry without a licence.
The Obama administration has discarded the old strategic alliance with Pakistan with brutal frankness. ‘We have much more to do with India today than has to do with Pakistan,’ Ashton Carter, the American defence secretary, said in April. ‘There is important business with respect to Pakistan, but we have much more, a whole global agenda with India, agenda that covers all kinds of issues.’
But President Obama’s personal role has been no less significant: it was the American leader who reached out first. As recently as 2013 State Department officials were still insisting Modi was not welcome in the US, even though the UK had ended a similar ban the year before. Obama put an end to the policy, personally inviting Modi to the US in a telephone call the day he was elected. And it was Obama who went out of his way to forge a link with Modi on his first trip to Washington in 2014, ditching his White House staff and giving the Indian leader a personal guided tour of the Martin Luther King memorial.
The Indian leader repaid the compliment, inviting Obama to be his personal guest at Republic Day celebrations in 2015 and welcoming him with one of his trademark bearhugs. The president has described the Indian premier as ‘my partner and friend’, while Modi told the Wall Street Journal in May: ‘It is true that Obama and I have a special friendship, a special wavelength.’
It is a friendship that has puzzled many. Obama, the first black American president, champion of minorities and the oppressed, does not seem a natural fit with Modi, veteran of the right-wing Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the man on whose watch more than 1,000 people were massacred in Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002. A few days after Modi’s trip to Washington, 11 people were sentenced to life in prison for their part in one of the worst atrocities of 2002, the Gulbarg Society massacre, in which 69 people were hacked and burned to death. The court called it ‘the darkest day in the history of civil society’. Modi was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Indian Supreme Court in 2012, but his critics still claim he didn’t do enough to stop the killing, and other legal cases against him are pending.
Some political analysts have even gone so far as to suggest that the friendship between the two leaders is a facade for the cameras. But if Modi doesn’t appear an obvious partner for Obama, there is no doubt that India, the world’s largest democracy and the land of Gandhi, is.
The new US-India embrace has not come about in isolation. During his final years in office, President Obama, long accused of neglecting international affairs, has been quietly presiding over an earthquake in America’s foreign relations. He has loosened the longstanding friendship with Israel in a way that would have been unthinkable under any other recent president. He has started a thaw in relations with Iran, and stepped back from Saudi Arabia. He is tearing up old alliances left over from the Cold War and realigning America in the world.
Seen in this context, his embrace of India makes sense. The US needs a regional counterweight to China. Who better than India, a genuine democracy and, on paper at least, a secular one? Modi did not shy away from mentioning China in his speech to Congress, speaking of the importance of ‘security of the sea lanes of commerce and freedom of navigation on seas’, a reference to Chinese attempts to lay claim to disputed parts of the South China Sea.
The address to Congress may have stolen the headlines, but the real business came the day before, at Modi’s talks with Obama.
That was a major objective for Obama, because it will make it harder for Donald Trump to overturn the accord, as he has pledged to do if he wins the US election in November. Once 55 countries, accounting for 55 percent of global emissions sign up, the accord comes into effect, making it much more difficult to dismantle — and India could get it over that hurdle.
The burgeoning relationship is also, of course, about business in a more literal sense. When Modi was elected, he was seen as a Prime Minister who would finally complete the liberalisation of the Indian economy and strip away the layers of regulation and bureaucracy that have stifled foreign investment. ‘As US businesses search for new areas of economic growth, markets for their goods, a pool of skilled resources, and global locations to produce and manufacture, India could be their ideal partner,’ he told Congress. But his critics, both at home and abroad, say real reform has not matched the rhetoric, and stultifying bureaucracy remains.
Dissenting US voices say that in his rush to embrace Modi, Obama has engaged India just as it is becoming less democratic, less tolerant, and less secular. Just two weeks before the Modi visit prominent American senators spoke out against his government’s human rights record, pointing to the high instances of rape and violence against women, the continuing practices of human trafficking and bonded labour, and a recent crackdown on international funding for NGOs. A group of Indian-American Christians protested that Modi’s policies had ‘driven the country into religious polarisation’, while a representative of the Indian-American Muslim Council accused him of using the same sort of inflammatory rhetoric as Mr Trump.
All the same, there was little sign of criticism as Modi brought Congress to its feet. In the rapidly changing geopolitics of the 21st century, a man the US once considered beyond the pale is now a treasured ally.
Justin Huggler was Asia Correspondent of The Independent from 2004 to 2007, based in New Delhi. He covered the 2001 war in Afghanistan and the US-led occupation of Iraq. His first novel, The Burden of the Desert, set in occupied Baghdad, was published by Short Books in 2014.