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Nelson: U.S.-India relations now depend on ‘Modi factor’

Nelson

Nelson

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Updated: July 9, 2014 6:15AM



The legislative elections are over in India, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Narendra Modi, is the big winner. The BJP won a majority of the seats in the lower house of the legislature (the Lok Sabha), the largest single-party win in 30 years.

Asia policymakers, analysts and scholars are scrambling to figure out what a Modi administration means for world politics, economics and security. This is an important matter considering that Modi will preside over a rising world power — a country that’s the second-most populous on Earth, a top five economy and a nuclear power.

India also sits squarely in a strategically important area. To the east is an increasingly aggressive and dominant China, to the west is the chaotic Af-Pak region and a considerable portion of the nation is surrounded by the commercially important Indian Ocean.

It will be interesting to see how India’s relationship with the U.S. develops going forward. For almost a decade, the U.S. has had in place a travel ban on Modi.

As chief minister, he was seen as complicit in the infamous 2002 riots in Gujarat, which resulted in the deaths of about a thousand people, mostly Muslims. (He was cleared of wrongdoing by India’s judicial system, though he has never apologized for the violence on his watch.)

The riots in combination with a particular ideological strain in the BJP have fostered the perception among some in the West and Pakistan, but also within India’s minority populations, that Modi is a hard-line Hindu nationalist.

It was only late last year, once it became clear that he was a formidable national political force, that Obama administration officials began the process of establishing outreach to Modi. More recently, American officials have declared that they’re ready to do business with a Modi administration, saying that “the United States has welcomed every leader of this vibrant democracy, and that a democratically elected leader of India will be a welcome partner.”

And Obama himself congratulated Modi on his win and invited him to the White House “to strengthen our bilateral relationship.” It’s a start, to be sure, but it remains to be seen whether Modi will hold a grudge against Washington.

There are additional factors we must take into consideration. For instance, the historical relationship between the two countries has been uneven, at times characterized by suspicion and distrust.

During the Cold War, despite its so-called non-aligned status, India cultivated solid ties to the USSR, America’s arch foe, to use as a bulwark against China. Of course, it didn’t help that the U.S. sided with strongly anti-communist Pakistan, India’s longtime rival.

Once India opened up economically in the 1990s, the U.S. cautiously embraced it, though American ties to Pakistan remained a sore spot, preventing the world’s two largest democracies from establishing dovish relations. President George W. Bush tried to advance the relationship further, as evidenced by the 2005 U.S./India-brokered civilian nuclear deal.

But it’s not only historical factors that are important here but contemporary events as well. The sad truth is that India-U.S. relations have regressed under the Obama administration. Far too many Indian officials believe that Obama has treated their country with relative indifference.

India has been willing to buck Washington’s line on pressing issues such as the chaos and violence in Ukraine and climate change. And the infamous Devyani Khobragade visa row — that included her arrest and a strip search — has been a significant obstacle for both nations to overcome.

There is a silver lining, however. Modi was elected on the promise of achieving economic progress for India, which might moderate him and his policy positions toward the world, particularly the U.S.

Put simply, economic imperatives — namely, the search for foreign trade and investment — could prompt Modi to set aside personal and historical grudges.

Brad Nelson is an adjunct professor of
political science at St. Xavier University in Chicago and the president and co-founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization.



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