For both Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama, each will be an acquired taste for the other. Their timelines in their respective careers converge at a point where Obama is looking back at his legacy while Modi is looking ahead to create it. Their motivations and considerations in their respective careers are necessarily different and possibly at variance. Given that reality, despite Obama’s express wish to work with Modi, I am not entirely sure what it is the two men can do that would leave a lasting impact on India-US relations.
By the time Modi is sworn on May 20, Obama would have a little over 970 days left in his presidency (His term ends at 11.59 a.m. on January 20, 2017). Of those, one can safely argue that more than a third would be in the lame duck period of the presidency. That is certainly going to be a factor in how the Obama-Modi equation develops. Add to that the obvious source of displeasure in Modi’s mind about the U.S. denial of a visa to him since 2005, imposed by the government of then President George W. Bush and continued by Obama. Even if Modi chooses to rise above it, it is likely to rankle in his mind for the foreseeable future. However, the third and perhaps the most important factor that would influence this relationship as an element of Modi’s foreign policy dynamic would be his own worldview. Although Modi has spoken in terms of India’s foreign policy being a product of overall political consensus, his own personality is likely to compel him to give it distinctly different contours. It is from that standpoint that I see Modi treat Obama’s offer to work together with a degree of calibrated detachment. Of course, the strong Gujarati community within the larger Indian American diaspora, which has almost entirely supported Modi for years, is likely to be a factor but only a marginal one.
Some believe there may be an opportunity for the Obama administration to choose an ambassador to New Delhi who could be from among the Indian American community. After the resignation of the last ambassador Nancy Powell barely two months before the Indian parliamentary election, that important position is open even as Powell continues to serve until a successor is appointed. Delhi is a prized posting and is not decided lightly. The name of Rajiv Shah, the 41-year-old head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been mentioned as a possible nominee among others but that could be tricky. His being a fellow a Gujarati could be both a strength and weakness at the same time since he may not seem like much of a counter to the Modi foreign policy establishment. Washington would need someone who is a compelling interlocutor during the early days of the Modi administration since the prime minister could well choose to play hardball on account of the visa denial. The choice for Modi is between being practical by treating the denial as water under the bridge and principled by reminding the U.S. of its nearly a decade-old position on him personally.
I have been asking the state department types since 2005 how they propose to deal with the eventuality of Modi becoming prime minister some day. Their default response has been that they would cross the bridge when they come to it. The bridge is here. Somewhere along the line the logic in their mind has been that once he becomes India’s prime minister the visa issue would become redundant because he would be granted the A-1 visa, afforded to the heads of state. I think Washington has underestimated individual grudge that Modi could be harboring at being treated like a toxic dump. With Obama explicitly inviting him to visit Washington D.C., the U.S. has taken a characteristically self-serving and practical position. The question is whether Modi would be in a hurry to travel in time for the Obama presidency to be still its effective period. I am tempted to wager that he will but he will do so not as his first port of call as prime minister. He will likely pointedly make it a second port of call. The first could be Japan or even China, the latter much to Washington’s chagrin. Or he might choose to take the middle path by traveling to Germany or Britain. In short, who knows?