Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the US this week has been hailed as successful. This has been a studied, businesslike trip without the hype of his first official visit in 2014. At that time, Modi was relatively unknown to the American public. He wowed Americans with his spectacular Madison Square Garden meeting attended by more than 50,000 Indian Americans. This week, Modi, on his seventh visit to the US as Prime Minister, met the new American President Joe Biden as a more confident and established leader. He has grown in stature in the past seven years. He has been rubbing shoulders with global leaders in multilateral and bilateral meetings.
Modi has interacted with three American Presidents in the last seven years. He has been successful in building a personal relationship with them. For instance, he had the best of equations with Barack Obama and his successor Donald Trump, two personalities different in their outlook and belonging to rival political parties. His meetings with Obama were more than cordial. Trade, defence, and climate change were at the heart of the talks. That trip had also emphasised an Indo-Pacific strategy. Obama and Modi signed a declaration of friendship: “Chalein saath saath [Let’s move forward together]…”
Americans were impressed with his showmanship and event management skills. Modi landed in New York in 2014 for his first visit to the US as Prime Minister, wearing a brown suit, fancy shoes, and sunglasses. This time, in 2021, Modi has given up the baseball cap and chic sunglasses – wearing white dhoti and kurta with a brown vest. He has grown his hair and beard long, reminiscent of a Hindu sage.
Modi’s meetings with Obama were so good that he was on a first name basis soon with the then President. This was cemented by Obama’s visit to India in 2015, seen as a rare gesture as no president had paid two trips in one term. Obama’s gift to India then was taking Indo-US ties to a new height. He had struck a good friendship with Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, Modi’s predecessor. Obama continued his excellent relationship with Modi.
When Trump became the President, disproving many apprehensions, he offered a hand of friendship to Modi, who returned the good gesture with his bear hugs. Trump and Modi, both right-wing leaders, forged a strong connection. In the 2020 US election run-up, critics accused Modi of tacitly endorsing Trump’s re-election bid during his “Howdy Modi” event in Houston gathering more than 50,000 Indian Americans.
Responding to Modi’s invitation, despite the Presidential elections, Trump visited India in February 2020. The ‘Namaste Trump’ rally in Ahmedabad, Modi’s hometown, with a massive 100,000 strong crowd brought Trump and Modi together on the stage again. Trump loved the pomp and grandeur of the show.
Now Modi is trying to build a relationship with Biden. This was the first in-person meeting with Biden. However, they met virtually on three occasions — the Quad summit in March, the climate change summit in April, and the G-7 conference in June this year.
Nothing spectacular was expected in this first meeting as it was more of a ‘getting to know each other” session. Both leaders skirted around the contentious issues that have been swept under the rug, like India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 during the Trump era. The American media has been critical of Modi’s handling of Covid just as Biden is under attack on Afghanistan. Both sides sought to approach their objectives and how to move forward. They discussed a wide range of issues including Covid, climate change, and economic cooperation. Many of Biden’s priorities – including climate change – will require India’s cooperation. Modi took the opportunity to raise trade-related issues which have been pending for a long.
Modi also utilised the Indian connection of Vice President Kamala Harris, who suo motu raised Pakistan’s terror role.
The ties between the two countries are on an upward trajectory and the first meeting indicated a smooth beginning. So far, the Biden administration has treated Indo-US ties as important, and senior US officials have already visited India. A new beginning has been made with the first Modi-Biden summit.