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The Trajectory of India-U.S. Relations

What will Modi accomplish during his upcoming visit to the United States?

June 6, 2016

What will Modi accomplish during his upcoming visit to the United States?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming state visit to the United States on June 7-8, 2016, at the invitation of President Barack Obama at the tail end of his administration, is not likely to produce as much euphoria or enthusiasm as it did during his maiden trip as a prime minister in September 2014.

Undoubtedly, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi have been able to forge a close and sturdy political rapport between them. This significantly contributed to strengthening and deepening of bilateral ties in myriad fields.

At the same time, foreign policy pundits in both the countries appear to be overly optimistic that Modi’s visit will give a new momentum and impetus to Indo-American relations, especially in defense and security realms.

Quite importantly, Modi has been invited to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress on June 8 – a rare personal honor for him.

It might be recalled that the United States had treated him as a “pariah” following the Gujarat riots in 2002. In that episode, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat, over 1,000 people – mostly Muslims – lost their lives in the worst hit communal violence.

The same Modi will be accorded the red carpet treatment as a “rock star” world leader by the U.S. Congress. In realpolitik terms, this speaks of the primacy of national interests.

In fact, geostrategic calculations on both sides have prodded them to recognize mutual geopolitical necessity to cooperate with each other in the field of mutual concern and interest.

These include notably the issues of homeland security, nuclear terrorism in South Asia, bilateral defense, trade and transfer of dual-use nuclear technology.

Defense and Security Ties

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal previewed possible upcoming deals to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during a May 24, 2016 Congressional hearing on India.

She stated that some “foundational agreements,” including on military logistics, are likely to be signed between India and the United States, apart from a push for greater interoperability in militaries of the two countries.

This will facilitate undertaking joint operations in the Indian Ocean to ensure maritime security. In this context, it must be recalled that Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s visit to India in April 2016 was primarily aimed to deepen bilateral defense cooperation.

Such cooperation includes co-development and co-production of weapons and collaboration under the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). Carter and his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar further agreed to enhance military cooperation and technology transfer.

According to a joint statement, both the leaders affirmed their commitment to a “white shipping” technical arrangement to improve data sharing on commercial shipping traffic. Also, Parrikar appraised Carter of India’s reforms in the defense sector, especially pertaining to the Make-in-India campaign.

These issues are likely to dominate in the coming Obama-Modi dialogue.

At the same time, India has made it unambiguously clear to the administration that it is not going to enter into the U.S. led-alliance network. That, in Indian perception, would be tantamount to compromising its strategic autonomy and independent stance in foreign policy and diplomacy.

This sounds contradictory given the “complex interdependence” between the two countries. Unfortunately, the Indian ruling class finds it virtually impossible to get out of its straitjacket mentality, even in the fast changing globalized and interdependent world order.

Other problems stemming from complex interdependence relate to regulating the “overlapping interests” and divergent perceptions on global and national security issues.


The gargantuan challenge before Modi and Obama is to address the persisting trust deficit between New Delhi and Washington. The fact is that both countries will continue to have divergent strategic goals and priorities on global and regional issues.

These differences cover human rights, regime change in Syria and a broad spectrum of power asymmetries between the two countries. Furthermore, psycho-cultural incompatibilities persist in terms of mutual images, belief systems, socio-cultural values and mind-sets of bureaucracies on both sides.

At the same time, India also needs to liberate itself from the artificially created complexes such as those emanating from the past non-aligned aura of independence and autonomy in the domains of foreign policy and diplomacy.

India must understand that the world is becoming more and more integrated globally, demanding a cooperative, restrained and rational approach to dealing with partners.


India fears closer US ties could affect its strategic autonomy & diplomatically independent stance.

US-India talks will cover terrorism, bilateral defense, trade and transfer of dual-use technology.

India’s past non-alignment must be replaced by deepening global cooperation.