No Second Coming

There was a touch of brilliance and dalliance by PM Modi

Narendra Modi’s second visit to the US as Prime Minister could not possibly have matched the excitement generated by his first. On that occasion, exactly a year ago in September 2014, the world media took note. The circumstances were compelling — the euphoria over the BJP’s stunning victory in the May 2014 general elections had not yet worn off. Many believed India was on the cusp of genuine change. For Modi supporters, it was also a fitting rebuke to those sections which had lobbied to deny Modi a US visa while he was Gujarat chief minister. And Modi lived up to the hype with some eloquent speeches, especially the one at Madison Square Garden in New York where his arrival evoked frenzied delight. The visit, which had Modi addressing the UN General Assembly and co-authoring a perspective on India US relations in The Washington Post with US President Barack Obama, set the seal on his arrival as an important world leader.

This time the situation was far more prosaic, and unsurprisingly the visit was practically ignored by the US — let alone the world — media. Modi held a meeting at the SAP Centre in San Jose, similar to the Madison Square one last year, but while the crowd was substantial, the excitement level was far lower. As far as the world media was concerned, Modi stacked the odds against himself by arriving in the US practically alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis. Nor were there any major announcements from either Modi or Obama on India-US ties to justify widespread coverage. In any case, with Obama’s presidential term set to end in January 2017, he is already in his ‘lame duck’ phase — as the US media puts it — and was very unlikely to take any new initiative with India at this stage.

The visit did see yet another push by India for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. India managed to get the leaders of the other three countries seeking similar status — Germany, Japan and Brazil — together for a meeting in New York, the first in 10 years of the G4, as they are called. It also had President Obama supporting India’s membership bid in the India-US joint statement which concluded the trip. But Obama had endorsed the demand earlier as well, as far back as during his first visit to India in November 2010 when Manmohan Singh was PM. The other four permanent Security Council members — Britain, France, Russia and China — have done so too, though there is some ambiguity about China's stance. In any case, The support India's demand, which is more than a decade old, garnered has made no difference so far in the UN.

The reason is that while most countries agree there should be reform at the UN, there is disagreement over the contours of such reform. In particular, many countries feel the Security Council is a privileged club within the UN, 'more equal than others', and its powers should be diluted in the interests of an equitable world order, rather than allow it to expand in size. Pakistan, which has its own interest in keeping India out, is a vocal proponent of this view. As for the G4, Chinese analysts have argued that reviving the group could lead to China opposing Security Council expansion, since it includes China's long standing rival, Japan. In India too, even BJP veterans like former minister Yashwant Sinha have been critical of the supplicant tone the G4 adopted, arguing that India was better off demanding a Security Council seat on its own strength.

As on his earlier visit in 2014, Modi spent a good deal of his time wooing business leaders: a full day in New York, plus the weekend on the West Coast, where he met the IT czars. On every occasion, Modi’s pitch, selling India as an investment destination, was excellent, but once again, circumstances have changed since last year’s visit. At the time, it was possible to believe that the Modi government would indeed rapidly transform business in India by ushering in sweeping reforms. No such thing has happened. Even the official briefing after the meetings acknowledged that the business heads complained about India's bureaucratic ways, poor infrastructure and arbitrarily applied tax laws.

Unfortunately for Modi, a World Bank-KPMG report, rating the business environment in different Indian states - prepared at the instance of the Modi government and released barely a week before Modi’s US trip - was not encouraging. “The stark reality is that India remains a difficult place to do business,” Onno Ruhl, the World Bank's India director, has said in it. In the World Bank's last Ease of Doing Business Report too, India had slipped two notches to Rank 142 among the 189 countries surveyed. However, the problem is not merely about reducing red tape. As the controversy over the amended land acquisition bill and its ultimate shelving showed, easing the process of acquiring land cannot be at the expense of farmers' interests. Similarly environmental concerns cannot be jettisoned just to bring in more foreign investment. ‘Reforms’ of the kind businessmen want will remain slow because every government needs to balance different stakeholders' interests.

Will Modi’s second US visit impact his image at home? The first one certainly heightened his profile, but the second is unlikely to. If anything, it shows he in unfazed by the criticism that he has been spending too much time overseas and intends to continue doing so. Since diplomatic encounters are mostly scripted well in advance, Modi must have known well before that there would be very few tangible takeaways from a second US trip - and yet he went ahead. In the assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana that followed Modi's triumphant first US visit, the BJP did even better than expected, but that could well have been due to diverse other factors. This time, if the BJP triumphs in the Bihar election, it can safely be said the US visit will have had nothing to do with it.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi)

( Source : deccan chronicle )
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