Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, with US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on July 11 in New Delhi (Photo: pmindia.gov.in)
Turning positions on a dime is a uniquely American way of dealing with the world. The United States can do that swiftly because many of its policies have a strong element of expediency built into it.
In the current U.S.-India context, this is on display in the way Washington has so quickly positioned itself to embrace India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Watching NDTV group editor Barkha Dutt’s interview with US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns came as one more reaffirmation, if any was needed at all, of how nimble the monstrously large and powerful American policy behemoth is.
Burns, who met the Indian prime minister on July 11 to formally invite him to visit Washington in September, found Modi to be a “very impressive man”. When Dutt raised the inevitable question of whether the issue of the U.S. denial of a visa to Modi for nearly a decade would have any impact on bilateral relations, Burns did a fine pirouette on a shiny dime by saying, “I am a big believer in looking forward.”
Sure, you are Mr. Burns (Imagine as if I am saying this line in the voice of Mr. Burns on ‘The Simpsons’).
If the U.S. finds the prime minister “a very impressive man”, it is not a mutation that has happened since May 16. All things being equal, Modi has pretty much been the same person since and was even when a visa ban was imposed on him in 2005. It his massive election mandate that has compelled the U.S. change of position. There is no option for Washington other than citing extenuating circumstances for its past conduct and creating preemptive alibis about the way it is set to welcome him. It is all part of the statecraft.
It is true that countries cannot be stuck in the past while dealing with each other at the collective level. However, it is equally true that countries should not be so manifestly hypocritical. They can be but they shouldn’t be is what I am saying. Hypocrisy is a useful tool available to all governments. I should not quibble with that but I can.
Prime Minister Modi has handled himself with commendable maturity in not letting the visa denial rankle as he prepares to shape bilateral relations according to his own vision. It is hard to separate personal slights from national interests for any leader and for someone so self-aware as Prime Minister Modi it ought to have been even harder. I cannot read Modi’s mind but the evidence on display would strongly suggest that he has chosen not to mix the personal with the national.
I have not been able to do any research on this point but it is possible that Modi could well be the first Indian prime minister to visit America in barely four months of taking office. Of course, that is a consequence of the opportunity presented by the upcoming United Nations General Assembly in New York around that time.
For the prime minister personally, the visit to Washington would take place on the crest of political vindication provided by his recent electoral triumph. In politics, vindication is a prized commodity and India’s prime minister is particularly adept at using it well. By not doing the expected, namely sulking and playing hard to get in the face of American overtures, Modi has given himself a position of equity in dealing with President Barack Obama. In any case, the U.S. president is already within earshot of his lame duck period unlike the prime minister who has just got started. That fact also gives the latter some extra heft.
On a side note, Burns response to Dutt’s question about the news report that the National Security Agency (NSA) had put in place surveillance on Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a lesson in diplomatic balancing act. “I understand the seriousness of the concerns that have been raised. I am simply not in a position to comment publicly on those specific allegations. What I can say is that we will continue to deal with those concerns professional and through diplomatic channels,” he said.
The NSA is such a vast, complex and entrenched presence in American and global life that it is no longer possible to rein it in. In my exaggerated vision of the NSA, it has become a beast that gobbles up anything and everything that is thrown at it and uses it to grown even stronger. So there is no point complaining about the NSA because no matter what assurances that Washington might offer, it will continue to do what it has always done—gorge on information and intelligence, whether immediately useful or not.