Prime Minister Modi’s state visit signals dramatic transformation in bilateral relations

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

On June 8, Rishi Sunak, Britain’s prime minister with undisguisedly Indian roots, was hosted by President Joe Biden at the White House.

Precisely two weeks hence, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, will be hosted by Biden on a rare state visit to Washington on June 22.

These are two remarkable bookends between which lies the story of the growing impact of things Indian worldwide. Of course, it is a mere happenstance that Modi and Sunak would have visited the White House in such rapid succession but the optics of the two being courted by the Biden administration does tell a story.

“You know, in the past few months, we’ve met each other in San Diego and then we met in Belfast, and we met Hiroshima and now we’re here. And we’re going to solve all the problems in the world right in this next 20 minutes,” Biden told Sunak somewhat in jest. But for good measure he also added, “We don’t have a closer ally than Great Britain.”

While India is not a formal U.S. ally and has no ambitions of becoming one, it is obvious to all those who care to pay attention that the country has emerged as America’s most coveted global partner. The Economist, the most British of news journals where the collective editorial ass tightens at the slightest prospect of praising a non-Western leader, has a cover story in its June 17 issue headlined “America’s new best friend: Why India is indispensable.” “India does not love the West, but it is indispensable to America,” says the journal.

“No country except China has propped up Russia’s war economy as much as oil-thirsty India. And few big democracies have slid further in the rankings of democratic freedom. But you would not guess it from the rapturous welcome Narendra Modi will receive in Washington next week. India’s prime minister has been afforded the honor of a state visit by President Joe Biden. The Americans hope to strike defense deals. Mr Modi will be one of the few foreign leaders, along with Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Volodymyr Zelensky, to address a joint session of Congress more than once. The praise gushed on Capitol Hill about the partnership makes no mention of Ukraine, democracy or grit in the gears of America’s new best friendship,” the magazine says.

That is a characteristically qualified and equivocal praise from the magazine of a country which it has traditionally viewed condescendingly as a rule and with derision as an exception. It also notes that Modi is “the world’s most popular leader” with an approval rating of 77%, which is twice that of his Bharatiya Janata Party.

Washington is known for respecting success both in countries and leaders above all else, including principles. Modi’s state visit on June 22 is expected to have all the appurtenances of a state guest, including his second address to a joint meeting of Congress the same day. It is almost as if Biden is rediscovering India with great gusto. Factors propelling that approach are quite obvious—China becoming a deeply painful relationship for America from all angles. The U.S. needs a comparable demographic giant and that too democratic to boot on its side as it navigates the new reality of another 800-pound gorilla stomping around the global jungle.

Beyond the specifics of what defense and critical technology deals will be inked during Modi’s visit, it is clear that in the last year and a half of his first term Biden has decided go all out with India. One potential trilateral convergence between the U.S., Britain and India that is not talked about is in the area of artificial intelligence (AI). Sunak is positioning Britain as “a science and technology superpower” by 2030 with generative AI as its key elements. India with its massive dataset, which is second only to China, offers a fertile ground for constructive research and development of AI. The U.S. is already the progenitor of AI. Given this reality, there is great trilateral potential waiting to be tapped.

Contrary to some early concerns and misgivings in Delhi and within the Indian American diaspora after Biden’s rise, his administration had eschewed its much-expected obsession with human rights and related issues in India under an avowedly right-wing government. It is clear that for the foreseeable future Washington has decided not to pay substantive attention to those issues.

On a side note, the just appointed U.S. Ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti has traveled extensively around the country hitting all the important cultural and culinary spots as part of what seems like a strategy to revitalize his country’s diplomatic approach to the host country.

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