By Arun Kumar
India-US relations are poised for a takeoff after an eventful year and a historic election that transformed India’s new leader Narendra Modi from a US pariah to a partner ready to “chalein saath saath”.
Modi hobnobbing with Russian President Vladimir Putin and doing “business as usual” with Moscow, signing deals including one for 12 Russia-built nuclear units when the landmark India-US nuclear deal still remains stalled, made the US unhappy.
The American media too raised questions about how India could be “BFF” with both the US and Russia, but President Barack Obama was unwilling to spoil the party with an “important partner” and stuck to his plans to make a “historic” visit to India as guest of honour on its Republic Day and build on Modi’s “hugely successful” US visit in September.
At the turn of the year, in the midst of a major diplomatic row over the arrest and alleged strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York, US diplomats were still tying themselves in knots over how to deal with an ascendant BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
It was only in mid-February long after all its Western allies had read the writing on the wall that US Ambassador Nancy Powell chose to travel to Ahmedabad to meet the man whom the US had denied a visa for nearly a decade over his alleged inaction during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
But it would be another month and a half that, slowly shifting from ‘no change in visa policy’ to ‘Modi is welcome to apply’, the US would declare that it was ready to do business with and welcome whoever may be India’s new prime minister.
In the end it just took a May 16 congratulatory phone call from President Barack Obama to Modi on the BJP’s “success in India’s historic election” with an invitation to visit Washington “to further strengthen our bilateral relationship” to cut the visa knot.
As a somewhat wary US began wooing Modi in right earnest with Obama again calling Modi the day he took up the mantle of prime minister with a pledge to work closely together with him “for years to come”, the media also discovered a ‘new fashion icon’ in him.
Defying prophets of doom, Modi reciprocated in equal measure and came calling in September-end for what he himself later called a “hugely successful journey”, hitting it off with Obama, hard selling India to big business and wowing Indian-Americans.
Breaking the ice at a ‘warm’ White House dinner, a fasting Modi, sipping warm water and talking yoga, and an indulgent Obama vowed to “chalein saath saath – together we go forward” to realise the full potential of a renewed US-India partnership.
If Modi promised to take their stalled landmark civil nuclear deal forward and invited US defence companies to invest in India, the US committed to make joint and concerted efforts with India to dismantle terrorist safe havens, including four Pakistan-based groups.
With Modi promising a more business-friendly environment, corporate America too reaffirmed its faith and hope in the future of the US-India trade relationship with a commitment to invest $41 billion in India.
More was yet to come. With India standing firm on its subsidised food security programme, the two agreed on a so-called “peace clause” that ultimately paved the way for a historic multilateral trade deal at the World Trade Organization.
Amid the growing bonhomie, Modi played another diplomatic card, inviting Obama to join India’s Republic Day celebrations as chief guest in January – making him the first US president to get the honour and the first to visit India twice while in office.
Modi’s surprise whirlwind diplomacy earned him a spot in prestigious Foreign Policy magazine’s list of “100 Leading Global Thinkers” while Time readers voted him as the “Person of the Year.” But the editors of Time did not agree, and instead chose the Ebola fighters.
Meanwhile, despite stunning reverses for his Democratic party in the November Congressional elections, Obama issued an executive fiat to shield about five million of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, including over 450,000 Indians, from deportation.
In a nutshell:
* Year begins with India-US ties at a low over the Khobragade Affair
* US makes first overture to Modi with then US Ambassador Nancy Powell visiting him in mid-February
* Obama cuts the visa knot with a May 16 congratulatory phone call to Modi on BJP’s “success in India’s historic election” and an invitation to visit Washington
* Obama calls again the day Modi takes up the mantle of prime minister with a pledge to work closely together “for years to come”
* Defying prophets of doom, Modi makes a “hugely successful journey” to Washington in September hitting it off with Obama
* Modi also praises Indian Americans who give him a rock star like reception in New York
* Obama-Modi summit ends with a pledge to “chalein saath saath – together we go forward” to realise the full potential of a renewed US-India partnership
* Modi plays another diplomatic card inviting Obama to join India’s Republic Day celebrations as chief guest in January, 2015
* US is upset over India doing abusiness as usual’ with Russia, but Obama makes no change to his plans to visit India