Prime Minister Modi’s first visit to the United States

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi successfully concluded his first official visit to the United States earlier this week. Making a series of widely publicized appearances, culminating in two meetings in the White House with President Barack Obama, Modi garnered an overwhelmingly positive reception.  The visit has generated considerable enthusiasm over the prospects of an improved US-India relationship. Modi’s agenda, which reportedly spanned 50 engagements in 100 hours, covered a range of aspects of the Indo-American partnership, with particular emphasis on its economic dimension. In this regard, Modi met with Members of Congress, prominent state-level leaders, Fortune 500 CEOs and major philanthropists. In an unprecedented event, Modi addressed 20,000 Indian Americans at Madison Square Garden, an ecstatic gathering the New York Times’ Ellen Barry described “as if all the Rangers, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen had suddenly materialized.”

Modi’s message to all was consistent throughout, largely spelled out in catchphrases such as “red carpet and not red tape,” (for investors) “make in India” (for manufacturers) and even, “may the force be with you.” He stressed efficiency, ease of doing business, transparent governance and the importance of bringing the promise of bilateral arrangements in defense, energy, infrastructure creation and counterterrorism to fruition. In a meeting with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, his predecessor Michael Bloomberg and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Modi sought to learn from them how they have confronted challenges created by  urbanization, this being an area of importance to the new Prime Minister. In discussions with prominent CEOs such as Indra Nooyi, Lloyd Blankfein and Jeff Immelt, Modi sought to understand their impressions of the Indian investment climate and made a commitment to investors to bring “change that is not one-sided.”

Modi’s first meeting with President Barack Obama was highly anticipated for a number of reasons.  Many observers wondered whether the two leaders would be able to strike a rapport with each other. Their meeting was high on symbolism, with Obama reportedly greeting Modi with a “kem cho” (“how are you?” in Gujarati) and Modi presenting the President with memorabilia associated with Martin Luther King’s visit to India in the 1950s.  Afterward the two published a jointly crafted editorial piece and released a joint “Vision Statement” about the future of the US-India partnership.   After their second meeting, the following day, Obama gave Modi an unscheduled personal tour of the Martin Luther King Memorial.  A joint statement released after the second meeting of the two leaders announced a series of initiatives aimed at deepening the already broad engagement between the two governments.   These initiatives include:

Infrastructure Creation:

  • An Indo-U.S. Investment Initiative led by the Ministry of Finance and the Department of Treasury that will focus on infrastructure financing;
  • A Collaboration Platform convened by the Ministry of Finance and the Department of Commerce to assist U.S. companies that undertake infrastructure projects in India;
  • As India modernizes its rail system, the US Trade and Development Agency will provide greater access to locomotive technology.

Economic Cooperation:

  • A commitment to work towards resolving issues surrounding the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (which include India’s concerns on food security)
  • A high-level working group on Intellectual Property will be established as part of the Trade Policy Forum
  • Establishment of a Manufacturing Extension Partnership led for the U.S. side by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to share best practices in manufacturing.
  • A partnership between financial oversight bodies in both countries such as the Reserve Bank of India and the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the US Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of Currency.
  • A meeting of a reconstituted US-India CEO forum in early 2015
  • Through the US’s New Silk Road and India-Pacific Economic Corridor initiatives, promotion of India to its neighbors and the wider region to enable a freer flow of commerce and energy

Defense and Counterterrorism:

  • Renewal of the 2005 Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship until 2025 with a commitment to expand the range of activities undertaken under its aegis.
  • Reinvigoration of a Political-Military Dialogue and expansion of its role to serve as a wider dialogue on export licensing, defense cooperation and strategic cooperation. 
  • Creation of a task force under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative to improve bilateral defense technology transfer
  • Cooperation in the creation of India’s planned National Defense University
  • US commitment  to enhancing its technology partnership with the Indian Navy as well as expand the scope of its joint MALABAR exercise with India
  • A joint commitment to destroy financial and tactical support for networks such as Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the D-Company, and the Haqqanis.
  • Both countries reiterated their call on Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai to justice
  • Strengthening efforts to towards non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
  • Both countries asserted the importance of political stability in Afghanistan post-2014.

Energy and Climate Change:

  • Creation of a Contact Group to implement the civil nuclear cooperation agreement signed in 2008. An explicit goal is to bring US-built nuclear power plants to India.
  • A commitment to India’s phased entry into the four international nonproliferation export control regimes: the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group.
  • Expansion of the US-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy, which would include a new Energy Smart Cities Partnership
  • Expansion of the Promoting Energy Access through Clean Energy (PEACE) program to encourage the uptake of cost effective, energy effective appliances
  • Encourage a successful outcome of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
  • A new US India Partnership for Climate Resilience, which would include a program to improve air quality
  • Launch of a U.S.-India Climate Fellowship Program
  • $1 billion in financing from the US Export-Import Bank and the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency in order to make low carbon and efficient technology more accessible to India

Development and Poverty Reduction:

  • USAID will become a knowledge partner (along with the Gates Foundation) and provide technology and expertise to the Clean India campaign and 500 Cities National Urban Development Mission.
  • Establishing a development center for the India-U.S. Vaccine Action Program to develop affordable vaccines for dengue, malaria, and tuberculosis

Research and Education:

  • A promise to reinvigorate the US-India Higher Education Dialogue
  • The US will be a partner country at India’s annual Technology Summit in November 2014
  • India will cooperate on high-energy physics and accelerator research and development with the U.S. Department of Energy
  • Setting up a Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN, or Knowledge) under which India would invite and host up to 1,000 American academics each year to teach in centrally-recognized Indian Universities
  • Establishment of NASA-ISRO Mars Joint Working Group under the U.S.-India Civil Space Joint Working Group and commitment to support the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) mission, to be launched in 2021

People to people contact:

  • India announced visas on arrival for US citizens visiting India starting 2015
  • The US committed to working toward making Indian citizens eligible for its Global Entry Program
  • Creation of a Women’s Empowerment dialogue to enhance the role of women in both countries

While Modi’s visit was rich in promise and rhetoric, it did less to bring an immediate resolution to sticking points between the two countries. Arguably, the purpose of his visit was to reinvigorate the relationship, get acquainted with President Obama and his leadership team, and set the stage for future discussions on issues on which Indians and Americans don’t necessarily see eye to eye.  

Generally the US business community, such as the 400-odd members of the US-India Business Council gathered to listen to Modi speak in his final appearance of the visit, were impressed by his dynamism and rhetoric (all in Hindi, with English translation).  It was inescapable, however, that the Prime Minister’s language was almost completely prospective in nature.  His government, he promised, would be “quick,” and many of the issues he discussed would be tackled within the coming months.  As he readily conceded, he has only been in office a few months, and the initiatives he promised would take some time.  Most of his listeners were more than prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt on this, his initial visit to the US as India’s leader.  But as one unnamed American businessman speaking to the Indian press cannily put it, “there’s a lot of sizzle, but where’s the steak?”