‘On economy, the picture is a bit more mixed.’
By Raif Karerat
WASHINGTON, DC: As Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Washington, DC, on March 31st, for his third US visit — and second to this city — The American Bazaar asked three India experts to analyze the premier’s overall performance and also whether they have seen any qualitative difference in US-India relations under his government . We asked all the three the same questions.
Here are the answers from Lisa Curtis, a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation:
How would you rate Prime Minister Modi’s performance thus far?
Well, if you’re talking about foreign policy, I think Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi deserves high marks for a very proactive foreign policy. He has reached out to the U.S., [and] certainly strengthened that relationship. He’s also nurtured ties with other major powers — Japan, China, Australia, and others. And he’s managed to significantly improve relations with some of the South Asian neighbors, like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka through smart diplomacy. His government has been able to convince both nations to temper their relations with China and sort of rebalance relations between China and India.
Now some people would say he stumbled a bit on policy towards Pakistan during his first year and half in office. However, I would say that his surprise visit to Lahore on Christmas day last year was certainly a welcome gesture. It created a lot of goodwill with Pakistan’s civilian leadership and I think he also deserves credit for the restraint that was shown by the Indian government when the Pathankot air base was attacked just 6 days later.
I think that he has surprised many by having this very proactive security focus. His willingness to lean towards the U.S., and not be afraid to demonstrate closer relations between the two countries is extremely welcome. Most people did not expect him to make such bold moves toward the U.S., but Washington has been quick to reciprocate his positive gestures. Now, on the economy, I would say that the picture is a bit more mixed. He has certainly stuck to his promises to make the Indian business environment more welcoming to private investors, but his effort to make broad structural changes to the economy, like passing the land acquisition and GST bills, have been stymied. So to sum up, he gets high marks on foreign policy and a bit more tempered grade when it comes to the economy.
Have you seen any qualitative improvement in U.S.-India relations since Modi came to power?
There has definitely been an overall improvement in U.S.-India relations over the last two years. The fact that Prime Minister Modi is visiting the U.S. for the third time in less than two years, I think speaks a lot to how much both sides value the partnership. The advancement of the defense trade and technology initiative is one indicator of the qualitative improvement of the relationship. The signing of the joint strategic vision for cooperation in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region was also an example that the two sides have really taken the relationship to the next level.
There have been a couple of hiccups ups along the way. One issue has been the religious freedom issue. Prime Minister Modi, to his credit, made an important speech last year speaking up in defense of religious freedom. However I think there was some disappointment in his weak response to the mob killing of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri (who was falsely accused of consuming beef). There was some disappointment that he didn’t condemn this incident more forcefully. But I would categorize that as a minor irritant. And certainly there’s been no major setback in the relationship. There’s been mostly positive news to report when it comes to the U.S.-India relationship. That partly reflects the fact that there’s still strong bipartisan support here in the U.S. for bolstering Indo-US ties. It represents one of the very few issues on which you see Democrats and Republicans agreeing. So this gives hope that the progress that’s been made over the last two years will certainly be continued into the next U.S. administration.
Now, in your opinion, what are the most pressing issues on the bilateral front?
As I indicated, the defense partnership has definitely taken center stage in the relationship and the DTTI (Defense Technology and Trade Initiative) has become a cornerstone of the partnership. So making further advances with regard to our defense cooperation in the last few months of this U.S. administration seems possible. There’s a chance that we will see India sign one of the foundational defense agreements that the U.S. has been pushing for the last couple of years. That would be a real milestone in our relationship and a clear example of how far it has come.
Homeland security cooperation is an area on which we could be doing more. The U.S. and India share similar terrorism concerns. We could both benefit through more cooperation. Hopefully, we will see some renewed energy with regard to the homeland security dialogue. I don’t think we have achieved the real potential of that dialogue.