A multi-faceted relationship

But Prime minister's US trip reveals limits of summit meetings


New Delhi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's trip to the United States can be called a success because of the manner in which it has helped the ties between the two countries blossom into a multi-faceted relationship of a kind that does not exist with any other country, ranging as it does from investments, infrastructure collaboration, urban development, technology, trade, space, health co-operation and skills development to climate change and energy. He has also succeeded in keeping interest in India's potential at an elevated level, and the optimism that surrounds the existence of a government with a majority and, thus, the ability to take tough decisions has not dwindled. In terms of ensuring concrete results and forward movement in this multi-faceted bilateral relationship, however, the trip could have achieved a lot more.

For instance, the security aspects of the joint statement issued after the meeting between Mr Modi and United States President Barack Obama were largely aspirational, although security co-operation is unquestionably the strongest leg of the relationship at the moment. The United States affirmed that India is "ready for membership" of the Nuclear Suppliers Group; and there was a strong statement about freedom of navigation, including in the South China Sea. However, the nature of any maritime co-operation was not really spelt out. Counter-terrorism provided the most specific commitment. Intriguingly, of the five terror groups mentioned, while Al Qaeda was first, three India-focused ones occupied the next three slots, with the United States' Afghan bugbear, the Haqqani Network, bringing up the rear. The happy serendipity of the United States Treasury Department finally making a long-planned move on the financing of Pakistan-based terror groups added to the sense that here, at least, there was some commonality of interests.

If, however, there is an overall impression of stasis, this is because there is little chance of major breakthroughs at such summit meetings. It is unwise to expect major visits to move relationships forward. The actual spadework has to be done through massive official-to-official contact on a regular basis, particularly in areas that have become irritants to the overall relationship. On this trip, for example, consider the various areas in which progress might have been hoped for, and which were in fact discussed, according to the joint statement. India will have hoped for some sort of concession when it comes to the treatment of immigration of high-skilled Indians, or Indian companies that rely on temporary workers to be profitable in the United States. None was forthcoming. The United States, in turn, got nothing but a working group - to meet annually - on intellectual property. India did not get the "totalisation agreement" on social security payments non-resident Indians want; the United States did not get the bilateral treaty on investment protection that its companies want.

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Clearly, Mr Modi's own presence can not substitute for the hard preparatory work required, and the compromises that need to be made on the minutiae in order to get the big, headline-grabbing breakthroughs. The biggest lesson from the prime minister's summit is that the real work is at home. The United States trip was perhaps politically necessary for Mr Modi. But repair of the relationship must begin with greater reform at home.

First Published: Oct 1 2014 | 9:40 PM IST

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