Modi’s US Visit: Diplomatic Hype or What?

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

Notwithstanding the diplomatic importance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit (June 20-24) from the Indian perspective, one is compelled to deliberate on it from a few other angles. The importance being given to it in Indian circles is partly suggested by media at home according substantial attention to it from around a week before the visit has actually begun. In comparison, the American media has yet (June 16-18) to pay significant attention to the same. There is nothing surprising about this. The unwritten rule of Indian leader’s US-visit dominating Indian headlines days ahead of the visit has always been the trend. In contrast, the coverage by American media is primarily confined to when the visit actually begins. As of now, charges against former President Donald Trump, Ukraine-crisis, candidates in fray for Presidential elections and other issues linked primarily with the West are in the news. To a degree, Indian media’s coverage is suggestive of hype made about their leaders’ visit to United States being repeated once again.

Nevertheless, that Modi is visiting United States on an invitation and that this is a state-visit bears its diplomatic significance. Certainly, US President Joe Biden wouldn’t have indulged in this diplomatic exercise without any reason. There is no denying that US is not at all pleased about diplomatic courtesies being extended elsewhere towards Russia, China as well as Iran. While prospects of United States’ ties with Russia and Iran heading towards normalization in the near future seem fairly bleak, the same cannot be said about relations with China. At least, this is suggested by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit (June 18-19) to Beijing. Irrespective of whether two countries resolve their disputes or not, his visit signals their desire to at least extend diplomatic hands towards each other.

Considering that at present ties between India and China cannot be viewed as friendly, the timing of Blinken’s Beijing visit just ahead of Modi’s to United States does demand a little attention. Perhaps, United States is not too concerned about India’s diplomatic ties with China, Russia, Iran and other countries. There is yet another aspect, US-China economic ties have barely been affected by tension between them. Reports indicate that their bilateral trade hit a record high in 2022 with their imports and exports adding to $690.6bn. These points are being mentioned in view of United States’ diplomatic moves towards India being referred to in certain circles as a “counterweight” to China. Economically, this will certainly take some more time. At present, Blinken’s China-visit definitely rules out this option. The hard reality that even India-China trade ties have not been affected by diplomatic tension between the two countries cannot be ignored.

In lieu of Ukraine-crisis, prospects of India changing its diplomatic stand on the issue due to Modi’s US-visit may be viewed as minimal. The issue is certainly reported to be on agenda and will be discussed but nothing much is expected beyond that. True, Western countries would welcome lesser dependence of India on Russian imports, but this is least likely. Russia remains a leading supplier of crude oil to India. Besides, India and Russia aim to strengthen their economic ties and are also considering a free trade deal, as indicated by talks between the two countries.

The preceding point suggests that diplomatic “warmth” displayed by US and India towards each other during Modi’s visit cannot be viewed as a sign of New Delhi turning its back towards Moscow. At present, Russia is India’s fifth largest trade partner with US being the number one followed by China, UAE and Saudi Arabia. Economically, even if Modi’s visit is marked by talks and/or agreements about stronger economic cooperation, it is difficult to view it as a major step forward as US is already India’s largest trading partner.

Given that as per United States’ diplomatic protocol, heads of state visiting the country on invitation are given a 21-gun salute, this courtesy is being extended to Modi also. In 2009, during his state visit to US at the invitation of the then President Barack Obama, then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was given a 21-gun salute. Obama and Singh also held a joint news conference at the White House during latter’s state visit. So far, Modi’s packed schedule during his US-visit has not referred to Biden and him together addressing any media gathering.

A highlight of Modi’s visit during Donald Trump’s presidency was their sharing stage during “Shared Dreams, Bright Future” -a session of “Howdy, Modi” event, at NRG stadium, Houston, Texas on September 22, 2019, where more than 50,000 Indian-Americans had gathered. This was similar to the mega event organized by Indian community in honor of his visit to US at Madison Square Garden, New York on September 28, 2014. This was Modi’s first visit to US as Indian Prime Minister. He addressed a crowd of around 20,000 Indian Americans and NRIs gathered there. A similar event was apparently on the cards for this visit also but as reports indicate no mega-event, similar to this or one held at Houston in 2019 is taking place this time. Several interpretations may be drawn from this too, diplomatically speaking.

On one hand, Modi’s talks scheduled with representatives of Indian Americans and their presence at celebrations organized to welcome him cannot be ignored him. At the same time, some attention also needs to be paid to events suggesting the opposite. There are reports of events planned by human rights activists in protest against targeting of religious minorities, journalists and others in India. These groups have reportedly prepared fliers protesting against such communalism displayed by extremists in India and have also planned an event in New York, featuring a show called “Howdy Democracy.” To a degree this is also suggestive of different views held by Indian-American diaspora about Modi’s US-visit. It would be erroneous to assume that they all have similar, positive/negative views about it.

In India, irrespective of the importance accorded to Modi’s US-visit by media, this will bear significance for him and his party when the same is translated into electoral gains at different levels, from scheduled assembly to parliamentary polls. However, one cannot miss the point of Indo-US ties along with Modi’s US-visits being accorded minimal attention- in comparison to claims and promises about India’s progress- during BJP-stalwarts’ electoral campaigns, including their fiery, aggressive speeches!  

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. Her latest book is Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019). Others include:– Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).