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Mihir S Sharma: The Eagle has not yet landed

Last year, it would have been a national humiliation: a US president, on his way out of India, pauses to deliver a lengthy lecture on freedom of religion and Indian inequality in the heart of south Delhi. One of the many advantages of having tossed the United Progressive Alliance out is that we no longer have to endure complaining about national humiliations, since the current dispensation is known to be incapable of causing it.

Barack Obama’s speech at Siri Fort was the familiar masterclass in political communication: friendly, grave, flattering, visionary and professorial in turn. His words on the freedom of religion – including its propagation – enshrined in India’s constitution cannot but be seen as a warning to the Union government and the Bharatiya Janata Party that recent anti-conversion rhetoric runs counter to the interests of the bilateral relationship. Fair enough. It would be difficult for any US president to justify an alliance with a country attacking missionaries. (Unless it is Saudi Arabia, of course.)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi might well feel a little betrayed. One must wonder: did Mr Modi’s new best friend do our prime minister the courtesy of delivering a warning that a headline-stealing speech was on the way? This after Mr Modi went out of his way to charm the US president, with a tea-in-the-garden photo-op that rivalled the one last year of the Indian prime minister and the Chinese “paramount leader” sitting coyly together on a swing in Ahmedabad.

The bald truth is that Mr Modi deserves a lot of credit for doing his best to signal a rapprochement with the United States after a year poisoned by disappointment and the Devyani Khobragade affair. And the appointment of Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to the office of foreign secretary cannot be seen as anything but a reward for a year in which he oversaw the re-invigoration of the Indo-US relationship as our ambassador in Washington.

But it would be fatally dangerous to overstate the real achievements till now. A change in atmospherics goes only so far. Mr Obama’s personal investment in wooing the new prime minister (typically, more restrained than John Kerry’s outright fawning, but far more effective), and Mr Modi’s own efforts, have not quite translated into as many tangible pronouncements as were hoped.

True, on the defence relationship, movement continues. It has not markedly accelerated, as far as we can tell – the exact wording of the renewed framework agreement remains unknown, and the movement on co-production does not even look to be as major a step forward as was taken in 2013 on Manmohan Singh’s last visit to Washington.

And on the nuclear issue, the government has tended to show willingness to acknowledge that the US administration needs to be able to show its domestic interest groups tangible gains from the nuclear deal – which will require US companies to have a shot at building a reactor or two in this country. Thus, the Indian government agreed to putting Rs 750 crore into a liability fund (and the US government agreed to the arguably bigger step of dropping a demand for end-use inspection of facilities). A very useful agreement. But, as with defence, not as big a deal as was expected or hoped for.

The United States’ major push was to be climate change. Here the Indian side gave little on carbon emissions at least – no climate action targets were forthcoming, for example, although many expected them as an outcome. This failure will have rankled; President Obama specifically mentioned it in his Siri Fort lecture.

In each of these headline sectors, therefore, the summit underperformed. Which is fine, really – every time that Mr Modi meets a foreign leader, it can hardly be a paradigm shift, whatever he or his followers might think.

The problem, however, is that we have no clear idea as to whether the government recognises the nature of its underperformance. Is it beginning to believe its own rhetoric? That would be a disaster.

Consider defence cooperation first. In various off-the-record chats before Air Force One landed, both Indian and American officials were hopeful that three proposed agreements that the United States calls “foundational” would finally, after an 11-year delay, become reality. These agreements on logistical, intelligence and communications cooperation, if signed, would supposedly relax the legal constraints in the United States on certain high-technology transfers to India, and possibly permit Indian access to US satellite networks, for example. Clearly, this is in our interest, but the antediluvian dinosaurs in the United Progressive Alliance who were still fighting the last war with America didn’t let it happen. (Wait, we’ve never fought a war with America, you say? Amazing. Did nobody tell A K Antony that?) As far as we know, these agreements weren’t signed. At best, a commitment to signing them sometime in the future has been written into the framework agreement. If so, then as usual Mr Modi promises and promises and promises, even as he under-delivers and under-delivers and under-delivers.

And on the nuclear agreement, as Ajai Shukla has clearly explained in this newspaper (“Modi & Obama’s back-room boys broke impasse on n-deal in London“), the US government has simply thrown its hands in the air and told the Indian government “look, convincing our companies is your job”. And the Indian government has made the quite untenable claim that merely assuring US companies that the “right to recourse” they fear will not be implemented is somehow sufficient. In other words, it seems to think that changing the law that permits such a recourse isn’t necessary. Unsurprisingly, the companies may not agree with this view. Once again, the Modi government seems to think that just stating “things are different now” is the same as amending a bad law.

The road ahead is clear: commit to the defence agreements with the United States that are in India’s interest; negotiate hard on climate, but from the position of strength that comes with having made one’s own targets clear; and make it clear that changing laws is a priority, not special executive dispensations. Mr Modi must know by know what he must do. But he just hasn’t done it yet.

And Narendra Modi is, on all fronts, running out of time. Indian citizens and foreign governments have alike been tremendously patient, a patience born of despair at the pessimism that he appeared to have trounced on May 16. But Mr Obama’s speech at Siri Fort is a reminder of what will come if Mr Modi does not move beyond theatrics. Other people deliver speeches, too, cutting ones. The last thing that Mr Modi was elected to do, surely, was to enable such humiliation?

Twitter: @mihirssharma


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