Monday, June 20, 2016

Modi scored sensational success in US. But then he suddenly turned to Russia. What's up?

Narendra Modi's triumphalist performance at the US Congress set off the usual fan frenzy in India. (This organised brouhaha over every Modi visit abroad is losing its sheen through repetition). However, the hype should not prevent us from recognising the political importance the Prime Minister's fourth visit to the US achieved. For the first time India appeared to fall into America's military-industrial web. This has been a long-cherished ambition of not only Washington but also influential lobbies in India's political, administrative and intellectual circles. Modi seemed to follow their script. But immediately thereafter he took steps that pointed to possible second thoughts about what he had achieved in America.

Indians promoting American interests in India had their first victory at the policy level during the early phase of Indira Gandhi's prime ministership. This was ironic because Indira was to build her strength on the slogan of socialism and Nixon-Kissinger's America was to use dirty words to describe her. But in the 1960s her most trusted cabinet colleagues were Food Minister C.Subramanian and Planning Minister Asoka Mehta. They were also America's most trusted friends in India. They were backed by a good chunk of our senior civil servants who looked up to the World Bank-IMF as paragons of international virtue.

Then came, in the 1990s, the ultimate strategic guru, K.Subramanyam. A former civil servant and journalist, Subramanyam became the architect of India's nuclear doctrine and the India-US civil nuclear energy agreement. His position was that India should have strategic partnership with the US in order to strengthen Indian economy and to compete with China technologically and militarily. Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh paid heed to his advice, but without crossing what had come to be known as India's independent line.

There must have been developments in Delhi, unbeknown to the general public, that brought about a subtle departure from the Vajpayee-Manmohan line. In 2013 the leading American think tank, Brooklyn Institute, opened a branch in New Delhi to give "recommendations to Indian policy makers". This year the other leading American think tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also opened a branch in Delhi to "collaborate with decision makers in [Indian] government, business and civil society". Two powerful American establishments to help decision-making in India?

We can now see the larger picture into which the Modi visit fitted. It could not have been a coincidence that US senators who were critical of Modi before supported him now as they hailed the "Modi doctrine" and moved to pass a special Global Partnership With India Act. The joint statement from the White House declared that India had been upgraded into a "major defence partner". This meant, as experts pointed out, that India would be qualified to buy sophisticated modern weaponry from the US. In other words, India's elevation meant better prospects for America's weapons sales. The significant advantages America gained must be the reason why major US newspapers, which had paid scant attention to Modi's earlier visits, now played up the importance of America's closeness to India.

But Modi, there is ground to believe, has become a savvy player in international relations. As soon as he left the shores of America, he must have realised that becoming America's strategic partner essentially meant becoming part of America's strategic move to contain China. To be sure, China has accelerated building up Pakistan, including its nuclear capability, to contain India. Should India respond by ganging up with the US against China, or by trying to tell China that other choices are available?

The question must have occurred to Modi, for the first thing he did on getting back home was to phone, of all people, Vladimir Putin. Russia has had a long history of trusting relations with India which included transfer of military technology. This had come under strain on account of Manmohan Singh's overtures to America. At the same time, US-NATO hostility has forced Russia to forge extremely close relations with China. This makes Moscow the best possible interlocutor between India and China.

We must hope that Modi saw the un-wisdom of directly antagonising China. It would be in China's interests, too, to help improve relations with India. Modi must have calculated that the Shangai Cooperation Council's meeting in Tashkent next week is an opportunity not to be missed. India is to become a full-fledged member of the SCC at this meeting, opening new avenues for cooperation and understanding. Tashkent, more than Washington, will decide the way things move -- for Asia and for Narendra Modi.