Modi has learnt the art of the deal. Talk to everyone and keep your enemy close.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Twitter team must learn from the Twitter handle of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the former CIA director who knows there’s place to also have fun on the job.
Look at Pompeo’s tweet after the high-level dialogue between the foreign and defence ministers of India and the US in New Delhi Thursday.
What’s the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue? It’s a fancy name for getting this group together to work through the issues that bind & challenge our world’s oldest & largest democracies. #India #2Plus2Dialogue @StateDept @DeptofDefense pic.twitter.com/eXkEmJfCta
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) September 6, 2018
Compare this with the very boring and staid tweet put out by the PM’s Twitter handle (at least Nirmala Sitharaman changed her sari for this meeting with the PM).
I congratulate Secretary Mike Pompeo, Secretary James Mattis, EAM @SushmaSwaraj and RM @nsitharaman for a very productive first ever India US 2+2 dialogue. I am sure this dialogue will further deepen India-USA relations. @SecPompeo @DeptofDefense pic.twitter.com/qpEulXvqYw
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) September 6, 2018
Okay, then, as the millennials would say.
Those of us older, or old enough to remember, will point out that the prime minister’s brave gamble in further embedding India into the US sphere of influence takes a leaf from the book that two of his predecessors — Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh — wrote.
Or even Jawaharlal Nehru. Although you needed an American, US defence secretary James Mattis, to remind us of that, in his remarks to the media Thursday:
“Just three years after India’s independence, Prime Minister Nehru visited the United States — in his words, and I quote — ‘On a voyage of discovery of the mind and heart of America.’ Today, Secretary Pompeo and I bring the same spirit that Prime Minister Nehru carried to Washington almost 70 years ago, promoting the cooperation which both our countries earnestly desire,” said Mattis.
Certainly, Mattis is making it a habit to annoy his own president Donald Trump, if Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, is to be believed. And with his remarks on Nehru, who Modi has done more than any other PM to remove from public memory, Mattis may have irritated the Indian prime minister as well.
Still, Woodward may have done more for the PM than anyone else this week. By painting Trump as a willful, spoilt brat with a penis complex, Modi can at last heave a sigh of relief.
The US president is believed to have waved away the PM at the ASEAN summit in Manila last November, treating him like ‘just another Asian leader.’ This is the man, about whom it is said, “hates to be touched,” but then the PM went on to embrace him.
No matter. The India-US relationship is bigger than either man and will certainly survive both of them.
Modi’s contribution is certainly unique. Despite being denied a visa by the US because of his role in the Gujarat 2002 riots, the PM has swallowed the personal insult and went out of his way to build a relationship with Washington, both Barack Obama and Trump.
By signing COMCASA — the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement — Thursday which effectively integrates the defence communications networks of the two militaries on US platform, Modi has pulled India away from its fence-sitting and into the US orbit.
The ‘2+2 dialogue’ is one of those events which will be remembered later by historians, marking yet another watershed in India’s foreign policy. Like the time Nehru, during the combative days of the Cold War, sought to balance India between the two power blocs — and called it “non-alignment.” Like P.V. Narasimha Rao, who gently steered the ship away from Soviet-Russian waters (despite chastising the Soviets for their haste in disintegrating their Union), by reaching out to DC and opening up with Israel.
Modi is actually doing another Vajpayee. In 1998, Vajpayee undertook the nuclear tests, triggering sanctions, but also reached out to the US that was behind those sanctions. Two years later, Bill Clinton made a trip to India.
Similarly, Modi is deepening the Indo-US relationship but making it clear that he will also reach out to buy oil from Iran, a country Trump loves to hate, because this is in India’s own national interest.
So even as the ‘2+2 dialogue’ was receiving all the attention Thursday, Iranian Transport Minister Abbas Ahmed Akhoundi was meeting his Indian counterpart Nitin Gadkari in New Delhi. The meeting is significant because India has committed $500 million for building a Chahbahar port in Iran, although the US has committed to sanctioning all nations and entities that will do business with Iran.
Talks are on to find a payment mechanism that will circumvent those sanctions. Iran’s Bank Pasargad has opened a branch in India, while UCO Bank, which also had a rial account with Iran in 2012-2014 when the Obama administration applied sanctions, is returning to the act.
Modi, after four years, has learnt that the best way to make the Americans your friends is to show them the alternative. That’s why he will go ahead with the $6 billion Russia S-400 missile deal — he needs to tell the US that they aren’t the only boys in town, although he will likely pick them in a swayamvar.
That’s why the April Wuhan summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping is also important. If Trump can meet the Chinese leader before launching a trade war with Beijing, then so can Modi, against whose country Chinese troops faced off for 72 days only a year ago.
Modi has learnt the art of the deal. Talk to everyone. Keep your enemy close.
The lesson may serve him well in the election season around the corner.