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Modi's US trip an opportunity to mend US-India relations

Publication Date : 06-06-2014


Deeper defence ties and the speeding up of India's stalled civilian nuclear programme are likely to top the agenda when new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Barack Obama meet in September.

Modi will travel to New York for the United Nations General Assembly but will meet Obama separately in Washington for what many see as a chance for the two superpowers to shed the baggage of a strained relationship and reset ties.

A liability law that the US says is too stringent has hampered US firms trying enter India's nuclear industry. The two leaders are likely to cover that and push for improving other business and trade ties that lagged under the previous Indian regime.

Modi and Obama are also expected to explore the possibility of military purchases and discuss international issues like the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Ties between the two powers soured after the arrest and strip search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York in December, when her domestic helper told authorities she had been mistreated and underpaid. Dr Khobragade was asked to leave the US, and India subsequently expelled a US diplomat.

Modi himself had his US visa banned after the 2002 Hindu Muslim riots in Gujarat in which more than a 1,000 people were killed. He was the Gujarat chief minister at the time before becoming prime minister in a decisive victory last month.

Modi was shunned by Western diplomats until the British lifted their boycott in 2012. European Union countries followed suit a year later as a Supreme Court inquiry found there was no case to be made against Modi over the riots.

But the US failed to read the signs until February this year, when former US ambassador to India Nancy Powell met Modi after all opinion polls predicted his win.

Many see Modi's decision to go to the US as pragmatic and a mark of the importance of ties between the two countries.

"Modi has shown pragmatism and clarity of purpose," said Neelam Deo, director at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, a foreign policy think-tank. "He has set aside the bitterness surrounding the cancellation of his US visa to pursue foreign engagements which could augment his economic ambitions."

Former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh said: "Modi understands the importance of the relationship with the US. But it is the Americans who are making every effort to mend relations. The initiative has come from Obama."

Obama called Modi to congratulate him on the election win and sent Nisha Desai Biswal, the US point person for South and Central Asia, to India for talks today.

"There was a sense that the US administration had dropped ball on India," said Robinder Sachdev, co-founder and director of the US-India Political Action Committees. "So it's good to see the US taking the initiative now."

But the Americans are not the only ones reaching out. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will visit India next week in the first high-level contact with Mr Modi, who, while not allowed to visit the US, has been to China.

Ahead of his meeting with Obama, Modi is also likely to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India China South Africa ) summit in Brazil in July. It is understood that dates for a bilateral visit to Japan are also in the works, while Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin is due in India this month.

Said Mansingh: "I don't think he will take a back seat on foreign policy. It is quite clear he wants to make a mark in foreign policy."

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