India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi couldn’t resist a little jab at President Obama. In his remarks delivered at the conclusion of his recent meetings with Mr. Obama, Modi noted the “happy coincidence” that both India and the U.S. had concluded successful missions to Mars at about the same time. In other words – please note, Mr. President -- India is now playing on the same stage. (I was in India last week when the space shot took place; it was a moment of enormous national celebration and pride.)
That message seems to have been delivered. Obama sat down to a one-sided dinner with the newly-elected head of state (Modi was fasting), spent the better part of the second day with him and took him on a walking tour of the Martin Luther King Memorial. Compared to Obama’s rather churlish encounter the next day with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to whom he declined to offer lunch, the entertaining of Modi was considered rather grand.
True to form in the Obama White House, not much got done. There were no mentions of breakthroughs on trade issues or outstanding disagreements over civil nuclear liability. To remind: India is expected to be the world’s third-largest economy by 2030; with more than one million people in uniform, its conventional army is ranked the fourth in the world. India is also a nuclear power, it is the world’s largest democracy, it is a natural buffer against an expansionist China and it is dedicated to fighting terrorism. Should we not be eager to add India to our shrinking list of geopolitical allies?
Consider the opportunity. Our exports to Delhi last year totaled only $21.9 billion – barely half the amount we sold to South Korea, an economy only about 70 percent the size of India. Moreover, according to the OECD, middle-class spending in India will not only grow faster than in China in the coming decade – but will exceed China’s by 2023. Yes, China is a huge market, but in the not-too-distant future, it will be surpassed by India. Admittedly, all these projections assume that some reform of India’s dysfunctional bureaucracy and trade restrictions take place. But, that is what Modi has promised his country; he, too, knows the stakes are high.
Presumably, after a decade of shunning Modi over charges he abetted religious intolerance, the U.S. is perforce ready to befriend the Indian head of state, who was elected in a landslide in May. The people of India (and the courts in that country) have judged him innocent of complicity in the riots that left hundreds of Muslims dead in his home state; we apparently are ready to do the same. Still, there was some chill in the air between the two leaders, some lingering sense that the fence-repair team was still waiting in the corridor.
Could it be because Modi’s cause has been championed by Aaron Schock, a 33-year-old Republican Congressman from Illinois? Schock met Modi in 2013, was impressed with his pro-business agenda, and has become his ally in the U.S. He helped set up some of his meet-and-greets while the Indian leader was here in the U.S. Schock, who represents an agricultural district but also the home of Caterpillar tractor, and who is keen to promote exports for his region, has expressed frustration with the way Modi has been treated by the U.S. As he has noted, we have been much more forgiving of other heads of state with dubious human rights records. It would be unimaginably petty to give Mr. Modi short shrift because he has a GOP backer, but the Obama White House has been known to engage in paltry politics.
Obama may yet warm to Modi; we hope that is the case. The U.S. has much to gain from a constructive relationship with this emerging powerhouse. Modi is a rock star to Indians – even those in the U.S., whom he addressed at a packed Madison Square Garden. His appearance touched off exuberant chanting and cheering. It was, come to think of it, the kind of reception that Mr. Obama used to receive in his early days.
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