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'The Sky Is the Limit': Will Modi-Biden Optimism Reflect on Indo-US Partnership?

The visit is about democracies showing they can deliver no matter how cumbersome their systems and politics are.

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The flags are flying, the buntings are up, and the drums are ready to roll for a welcome ceremony likely to be remembered for years to come. Since President Joe Biden couldn’t make it to a stadium rally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is bringing the rally to him. 

Thousands of Indian Americans in their summer finery are expected at the White House ceremony. Indian Americans are showing their invitations on social media, bragging about the rare opportunity, and generally joining the excitement that has built to a fever pitch. A total of 125,000 have registered with the White House for the morning ceremony to attend but it is unclear how many will actually get in. The ceremony is expected to last about an hour, depending on the mercy of the rain gods.  

A state visit is rare and comes with all the bells and whistles, requiring a rarer confluence of geopolitical importance, bilateral stakes, strategic calculations, future expectations, and pure politics. India, under Modi, finds itself in that sweet spot.
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The visit in the words of John Kirby, the Strategic Communications Chief in the White House, will “affirm the strong ties between our two countries and elevate our strategic partnership.” He was only the latest in a series of top officials from the Biden Administration to bill the visit as something "extra special" with a double dose of optimism.

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Momentum Builds Around Modi’s Visit

The aggressive build-up has made some observers, including former officials, nervous because they say it is always better to under-promise and over-deliver than otherwise. Maybe it’s a generational thing. The US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan advisor is 46 years old and the Secretary of State Antony Blinken is 61. One US insider said it was about hard signals to a particular country of concern. 

Ably handling questions about India-Russia, India-Ukraine, and the state of human rights in India, Kirby went on to say, the two countries were “increasingly partners of first resort” – a line that will stick. “We support India’s emergence as a great power, there is no partner more consequential than India.” The visit will help put bilateral cooperation on “an inexorable trajectory.”

Others have used "escape velocity” and “sky is the limit” to describe the far-reaching outcomes. Other countries, including one whose name begins with “C,” will take note and draw their conclusions. The visit is not just about China per se but about democracies showing they can deliver no matter how cumbersome their systems and how divisive their internal politics are.

The visit is indeed pivotal and could be transformational if what flows from it – defence deals, tech transfer, loosening of export controls, steps to create a semiconductor ecosystem, and easier H-1B renewal process – lives up to the promise. The substance is strategic and signals are loud and clear.
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Stakes High on Biden’s Foreign Policy

As for pure politics – it is not lost on anyone that having thousands of Indian Americans throng the White House for the welcome ceremony with a marine band and around 300 to 400 (the guest list is expanding daily), fancy ones later for a state dinner, won’t hurt the Democratic Party prospects in 2024. Remember that Biden is a veteran politician – he has been around the block and then some. The marine band, the red carpet with Modi walking down the steps will create good visuals that can possibly be used.

Various spokesmen for Biden have used the bully pulpit to defend India’s democracy even as critics, including dissenters within the administration, have raised a long list of human rights concerns. The latest salvo came on 20 June, Tuesday in a letter to Biden by 18 US senators and Congressmen and women who reminded the president about his value-based foreign policy to try to rein him back from the realism track.

“We want that friendship to be built not only on our many shared interests but also on shared values. We do not endorse any particular Indian leader or political party — that is the decision of the people of India — but we do stand in support of the important principles that should be a core part of American foreign policy. And we ask that, during your meeting with Prime Minister Modi, you discuss the full range of issues important to a successful, strong, and long-term relationship between our two great countries,” the letter said.

It was signed by several Democratic senators, including Chris Van Hollen, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, and Tim Kaine. On the House side, the first Indian American Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal was the top signatory followed by several others. No other Indian American Congressman signed the letter, not even Ro Khanna who was Sanders’ campaign manager and constantly tweets on liberal causes. Khanna has taken to being a champion of the India relationship.

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A Congressional aide described the letter as “a demand signal that there should be greater emphasis on growing concerns about some of the anti-democratic things that are happening in India.”

The letter, in a spirit of fairness, did have a long preamble on India as a crucial partner for stability in the Indo-Pacific and its potential role in supporting secure supply chains. But then it meandered into the dream world of US foreign policy being based on values – something that rarely happens.
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A Partnership of "Trust"

Looking at two of India’s most difficult neighbours, the entire US relationship with Pakistan was based on interests, not values; the one with China centred on luring one communist giant away from the other, ie, the former Soviet Union. Latin America is replete with brutal examples of US realism, as is Africa. 

This is not to defend undemocratic tendencies in India, but Indians must fight that battle instead of US lawmakers' performance art for political and sometimes monetary reasons.

Biden may raise certain issues in private in a manner that would make sense – India’s democracy is a virtue and a key element in differentiating it from China. 

Going back to the visit and the bagful of deliverables, it is hard to be cynical even for someone who has watched the relationship wax and wane. Biden’s team is clearly making an all-of-the-government attempt to clear the glitches, oil the gearbox of export controls, think of new ideas, and talk about the future with India and the US walking together.

Apart from the already known General Electric (GE) engine deal for tech transfer and co-production in India, the General Atomic sale of 31 drones to India, and an investment by Micron worth USD 2.5 billion in Gujarat for a semiconductor testing and packaging plant, there is a lot more in the bag to showcase the partnership of "trust”, which is the new buzzword in geopolitics. Be it supply chains or “friend-shoring,” countries that trust each other will work together, such that the next pandemic does not shut the world down as completely as the last time.

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Steady Developments and Indus-X

The joint statement on 22 June after bilateral talks are over, is expected to cover the whole gamut – trade, space, higher education, artificial intelligence, the rollout of open radio access network for 5G/6G to counter Huawei, and work visas, among others. The momentum has come from the new policy framework of the Initiative for Critical and Emerging Technology, or iCET, announced last year and operationalised in January 2023.

In the short span of five months, the two sides have started to figure out how to create "complimentary ecosystems” for technology, defence cooperation, and startups. 

Indus-X, a conference to bring together the private sector and startups to showcase iCET in practical terms, kicked off on 21 June at the US Chamber of Commerce just across the White House. Hosted by the US-India Business Council, the gathering is meant to showcase the "full power of our free enterprise systems to the world,” according to Atul Keshap, President and a former US ambassador to Sri Lanka. 

He stated that India and the US were “two anchors of stability”, making an indirect reference to a country that shall not be named. The Indian Deputy Chief of Mission Sripriya Ranganathan stated that the India-US defence relationship had gone from "zero to hero.” Not to be outdone, Eric Garcetti, the US ambassador to India, declared that the two countries were “dating now” having moved from a relationship status that Facebook would describe as "complicated.” 

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The idea behind Indus-X is to connect the two systems in the field of research to develop cutting-edge defence technologies. If things ramp up after export controls are rationalised, this could be a deliverable that might pay dividends similar to a free trade agreement. 

The Modi visit is expected to add the final touches and the real fruits should start to become visible by next year.

(Seema Sirohi is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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