In his first significant foreign policy declaration since ascending to India’s Prime Minister’s Office, the Times of India reports that Narendra Modi will visit Washington in September for a bilateral summit with U.S. President Barack Obama. Notably, the meeting will not take place on the sidelines of the United Nations general assembly. The announcement washes away any doubts that Modi is not welcome in the United States owing to his previous visa issues — he was denied a visa in 2005 allegedly for his complicity in the 2002 Godhra riots in Gujarat. After his election victory, President Obama congratulated him and said that he invited Modi to visit the United States at a “mutually convenient” time.
The visit will be a significant event in the trajectory of U.S.-India relations which took a sharp nosedive in the final months of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s time in office due to a scandal involving the arrest and strip-search of an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, in New York City. The incident demonstrated that despite several reasons for natural strategic convergence between the world’s most powerful democracy and its largest, the bilateral relationship between India and the United States lacked depth. In an attempt to set the stage for a bilateral relationship with Modi as prime minister, the White House had its Ambassador Nancy Powell meet Modi in New Delhi before her resignation from the post.
Obama has given relatively little attention to India in the past year despite the acute divergence between the two countries that sprouted up as a result of the Khobragade affair. The bilateral summit in September will allow both countries to restate their strategic priorities. With Modi at the helm, the United States may be able to state its agenda more clearly. The BJP’s parliamentary majority means that any assurances the United States receives from the executive will likely be passed by the legislature, avoiding the sort of gridlock that was endemic to Indian legislative politics during the UPA’s time in power.
The bilateral summit will have a massive agenda for both sides. While Modi has said that he would like to focus on trade, investment and economic development first with the United States, Obama will likely be more interested in discussing matters such as the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, Modi’s intentions for Pakistan, and possibly even trilateral cooperation with Japan (should Modi end up making a trip there before heading to Washington in September). Additionally, the summit will be a chance for Modi to showcase his credentials as a diplomat. He has kept relatively tight-lipped on foreign policy matters, choosing instead of focus on what he knows best: economic development. Should he play his cards right, Modi could return from Washington as the sort of hard-headed and articulate leader his supporters want him to be for India on the world stage.