WASHINGTON (TIP): Why is Prime Minister Narendra Modi going to the United States again – for the fourth time in two years starting June 6 – that too at the last lap of the Obama Presidency and in the thick of the American presidential election, is a question that has swirled around political and diplomatic corridors for some weeks now. The answers, according to a range of sources, is as follows:
It was President Obama who invited Modi to visit. The invitation was weighed carefully before accepting it with a view to strengthening the relationship, because it was felt that despite all the convergence in recent years, New Delhi and Washington ”still need to get into the habit of working together.”
Besides, it was reasoned, if the Prime Minister did not take the opportunity to visit now, it could be another 18-24 months before such a visit could take place given that a new US President will be in place eight months from now, and it could be at least another year before she or he put together a team and settled in. Did it make sense to allow a long, fallow period of no high-level exchange at a time the ties had gathered so much momentum, was the question that the PMO chose to answer in the negative by accepting the invitation.
“The invitation and the visit is part of consolidating and celebrating the relationship,” India’s ambassador to the US Arun Kumar Singh, told correspondents on Wednesday during a preview of the 50-hour visit, extending across three days in Washington DC, the centerpiece of which is a bilateral meeting with President Obama on June 7 morning, followed by a lunch.
Although described an official working trip, the visit will have at least one characteristic of a ”State” visit, which was what was initially discussed before it was scaled down. Prime Minister Modi will stay at Blair House, across from the White House, which is usually where ”state” guests are hosted.
The scuttlebutt surrounding the scuppering of the “state” visit: Save it for the next administration.
Although officials dismiss talk of engaging with a “lame duck presidency,” maintaining that the US executive is fully empowered till the day the US President demits office on January 20, 2017, it is quite obvious from his schedule that the Prime Minister’s program involves heavy engagements with lawmakers. During a four-hour swirl of Capitol Hill on June 8, Modi will have four events on the Hill, including a joint address to Senators and Congressmen, and “unprecedented” luncheon hosted by the Speaker of the House.
He will also attend a “rare” reception hosted in his honor by the Senate and House foreign relations committees and the India Caucuses in the House and the Senate, some of whose members have lit into New Delhi for various perceived infractions, from human rights and civil liberties violation to lack of transparency and clarity in trade issues.
In fact, around the time Prime Minister Modi and President Obama finish their exchanges in the White House, the US Commission for Human Rights will begin its hearing on “Advancement of Human Rights in India.”
The Indian side appears to have taken the criticism in its stride, preferring to see and present the larger picture of a healthy US-India relations up front than be distracted by what they it sees as agenda-driven needling.
”Of course we have problems in India. No society is perfect. We are always ready to discuss the issues,” one Indian official said pointedly, referring to recent spate of criticism from Ben Cardin, a Democratic Senator from Maryland, who some Indian activists see as the ”Dan Burton from the left.” But those exchanges have to be on the basis of equality and recognition of India’s democratic strengths that allows India’s own civil society to expose such inequalities and injustices, not preachy and judgmental pronouncement from Washington.
Dan Burton was a US lawmaker from Indiana who routinely castigated India for years over human rights transgressions, mainly fueled by Khalistani and Kashmiri separatists.
Ahead of the Prime Minister’s visit and surrounding it, the two sides will sign a raft of agreements, including on facilitating fast track visits through a global entry program, exchange of terrorist database information, and return of stolen antiques.