Modi Woos the Congress --- in the US.
Narendra Modi has come a long way since the days in 1999, when he walked the long corridors of the Capitol Hill with a white cotton bag on his shoulder to lobby Congressmen and Senators to ensure that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund did not impose sanctions against India, following the nuclear tests. He was credited with a letter signed by some Congressmen, urging the World Bank and the IMF not to heed the US advice to impose sanctions. He also held consultations with senior officials of the Bretton Woods institutions, whom I invited to meet him at the residence of the Deputy Chief of Mission in Bethesda in Maryland.
Modi's fourth visit in two years to Washington as the Indian Prime Minister, a record in itself, is primarily to address the US Congress. His trend-setting clothes and familiar oratorical skills will be on display at the US Congress for the first time. The Indian community had lobbied hard to get him invited to address the Congress in 2014. But it could not be arranged because of the schedules of the House of Representatives and the Senate could not be adjusted to arrange a Joint Session of the Congress.
The invitation this time is indeed a gesture on the part of the US Congress, though it is also the result of the persistent efforts of the powerful Indian community through the India Caucus in the House of Representatives and the Friends of India in the Senate, once led by Hillary Clinton. Modi’s reputation has reached the shores of the United States and he is now considered one of the world leaders and, therefore, there is great curiosity about him. President Obama is particularly keen to introduce Modi to the Congress as he sees the Indian Prime Minister as a partner in the US initiatives in the Asia Pacific. The invitation to Modi is the final initiative he will be taking with regard to India during his Presidency. Apart from the address, Modi will be called upon to deal with the unfinished agenda in India-US relations.
Judging from the experience at the time of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s address to the Congress in 2000, such addresses by foreign dignitaries do not cause much excitement among the Congressmen and Senators. At best, they make a brief appearance at the beginning or the end as they continue to have other legislative business to attend to. The hall is filled generally by the invitees, mostly from the Indian community. If there are vacant seats still, they are filled by the staff of the Congress, including the pages or messengers. The significance of the address is basically symbolic, though the text of the address will be analyzed as the visiting dignitaries speak with a sense of history.
The Congressmen and Senators in the United States are more important than their counterparts in India, because they are not expected to toe the line of the President even if they belong to the same party as the President. They have elaborate offices with a number of staff members, who follow internal and external developments for them and also remain in touch with their constituents. They have the authority to initiate legislation and thus give directives to the President. Lobbying of the Congressmen and Senators, therefore, is a highly developed industry, in which people, including former legislators, engage in. Apart from various industrial and business interests, foreign governments also hire lobbyists to wield influence on the Capitol Hill.
India began hiring lobbyists at the time of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Ambassador Siddharth Shankar Ray, basically to counter Pakistan sponsored lobbying for Kashmir and Khalistan. The lobbying by Pakistan and India was so effective that many Congressmen used to say that they were prevented from moving an inch in favor of either of them. Our lobbying became more intense at the time of the nuclear deal and even industrial interests and the Indian community helped the process. Although there are rigid ethical regulations with regard to hospitality and other gifts that the legislators can receive, the lobbyists find ways and means to cultivate them for one foreign government or another. The creation of an India Caucus in the Congress was the direct result of lobbying by the professionals and the Indian community leaders. The Caucus, in turn, lobbied their colleagues to support Indian causes in the Congress. The attendance at the joint session will depend on the extent of the lobbying done by us to get important Congressmen to attend.
India-US relations have certainly improved since Modi became Prime Minister on account of the mutuality of interests, which have developed. Modi sees the US as the main source of investment and defense equipment. He is counting on the US for his initiatives such as Make in India and Digital India, for which the US has been enthusiastic. The co-designing and co-production of defense equipment,
together with the agreement on logistics, have taken defense cooperation to a higher level. Nuclear trade has not begun yet, despite the claim that the nuclear liability law was out of the way. A senior official of the Indian nuclear establishment suspected that the US was using the liability law as a smokescreen for their reluctance to engage in nuclear trade with India.
On political issues, the greatest gain has been the understanding reached during the visit of President Obama to India that India would be inclined towards the US in the ongoing rivalry with China in the Asia Pacific region. India has not, however, taken any concrete steps to formalize the strategic partnership by joining any of the US-sponsored groupings. On the part of the US, there is no progress on the horizon in India’s permanent membership of the Security Council, India’s joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and even the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC). India has concerns about immigration rules and the US has even greater concerns about the pace of liberalization of the Indian economy. Modi will have an opportunity to discuss these issues during his visit, but not much progress can be achieved in them. But given Modi's record of creating surprises, we may expect him to produce a rabbit or two from his magician's hat. His visits to Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may be of immense interest to President Obama. China will, of course figure in many ways, particularly after the visit of President Mukherjee to China. On Pakistan and Afghanistan, Obama may not be helpful as he has developed new interest in Pakistan and Taliban is not a bête noir for him.
The visit is taking place under the shadow of the forthcoming elections in the US and the dramatic emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate. Indians generally are comfortable with Hillary Clinton, but she has not done anything to deserve their trust. Trump, on the other hand, may be helpful to India because of his distrust of China and Pakistan. Anti-terrorism measures might also become more effective under Trump. Modi should do well to meet both Hillary and Trump during his visit. Vajpayee was in a similar situation in 2000 and he requested for meetings with Al Gore and George Bush. He met Al Gore, but all that Bush could do was to put in a call, while he was on the campaign trail. Modi may well have better luck with Trump. Modi and Trump may hit along well because of their basic business instincts.
Modi’s foreign policy in the second year of his tenure has lost some of its dazzle. Like in the second act of a Shakespearean play, nothing spectacular is happening on the stage. His dreams about a cooperative neighborhood has been shattered. But his visit to Iran has already rejuvenated him to a certain extent The visit to the US, with a splendid performance on the Hill, may well be the ultimate aphrodisiac Modi is looking for.