This column first appeared in Mint, on October 13, 2014. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.
By all accounts Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US was triumphal: both in purely investment terms and in terms of the lofty rhetoric and unprecedented public buzz that his outings generated.
The former, according to the US-India Business Council, will yield an investment of over $41 billion over the next few years. This amount is considerably higher than the $35 billion and $20 billion pledged by China and Japan over a period of five years; significantly the US investment pledges have come almost entirely from the private sector. Although the sum of all these investments is still only a fraction of the $1 trillion that India estimates it needs for infrastructure, it underlines that the US alone is likely to be the single largest source for this amount.
The latter was apparent in the unprecedented joint Washington Post op-ed penned by Modi and President Barak Obama and the ambitious Vision Statement, which for the first time called for consultations on global and regional issues, in addition to a bilateral focus on economic growth, energy and climate change, defence and homeland security, and high technology, space and health cooperation.
Modi’s successful visit was the result of two approaches. First, the series of high level foreign visits that preceded the US trip, starting with the BRICS summit, the India-Australia summit, the India-Japan summit and, finally, the India-China summit. The success of India’s mission to Mars also underlined its prowess as a frugal but effective space nation. All of these reinforced Modi’s international credentials as a man of business and action; hence Washington’s eager courtship.
Second, unlike previous prime ministerial visits, which were primarily centered around the White House with other events as side shows, Modi’s visit put greater emphasis on engaging three other key constituencies: the corporate sector; members of the Congress; and the Indian diaspora. The White House came last.
This was perhaps driven by the perception that a soon-to-be lame duck president alone might not be able to take India-US relations forward. Additionally, engaging other constituencies would also enable India to leverage them vis-à-vis the White House.
However, a successful visit is only as good as the ability to deliver on the promises made. Here, if Modi deserves sole credit for the success of the visit, then the inability to deliver on the promises made to the US constituencies also lies at his doorstep.
While the prime minister’s office (PMO) certainly has the capability to launch bold initiatives, it does not have the capacity to sustain them by itself; it needs the efforts of the various ministries. (Even the White House, which has many times the capacity of the PMO, cannot implement policy by itself and is heavily dependent on various departments).
Here, however, there appears to be a disconnect (if not distrust) between the PMO and other ministries. For instance, at a recent investor conference in the US four Indian ministers were slated to participate. This would have been a logical follow-up to cement Modi’s initiatives. Inexplicably, all four ministers dropped out, reportedly at the command of the PMO.
This does not augur well to sustain let alone enhance India-US relations as outlined in the ambitious Vision Statement. Even the involvement of all of the ministries might not be adequate to service and deliver on the promises made.
While Modi (and Obama) have seized the leadership moment to renew the US-India partnership, the inability to effectively use various ministers and ministries to deliver on the promises made could squander that moment. This would be an unfortunate waste of initiatives that would serve neither Modi nor India well.