The United States has once again found it prudent to engage the world’s largest, albeit complex, democracy: India. The country’s social media networks and news outlets were abuzz with the news Tuesday that U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell has requested a meeting with Narendra Modi, the chief minister for Gujarat state. A simultaneously dynamic and divisive political figure, Modi has been no stranger to controversy since a wave of sectarian violence struck Gujarat in early 2002.
Accusations against Modi at the time ranged from a tacit acceptance to all-out encouragement, facilitation and instigation of Hindu violence against Muslims. Although cleared by Indian courts of any wrongdoing, Modi found himself facing a visa ban from the United States, a similar blacklist in the United Kingdom and a less than enthusiastic response from the European Union.
But Modi’s fortunes have changed in the near decade since being denied entry into the United States. Now the front-runner for the Bharatiya Janata Party in May’s national elections, Modi stands a fair chance of becoming India’s next prime minister. His supporters are lauding the fact that it is the United States that is initiating a meeting with Modi, and not the other way around. Some are also saying that the move reflects a tacit American recognition that Modi may help propel the Bharatiya Janata Party to power. Outside the realm of Indian politicking, the move more likely reflects Washington’s change in focus from the Islamic world to the broader Indo-Pacific, a region where India fits neatly within American plans for a balance of power and greater cooperation among its various strategic partners and allies.
This is not the first time the United States has attempted to re-engage India. The George W. Bush administration worked hard toward a US-Indian civil nuclear agreement, with the final 2008 ratification bringing the civil nuclear program of India—a non-signatory of the international Non-Proliferation Treaty—off the international blacklist. What was expected to follow was preferential access for US investment into Indian civilian nuclear projects, as well as information technology, infrastructure and other sectors of the economy. In addition, Washington hoped for a closer working relationship with New Delhi in the face of rising Chinese military and naval capabilities in Asia.
Instead, the inertia of the Indian political machine and New Delhi’s traditional avoidance of long-term alliance structures left U.S. ambitions out in the cold for several years. Distracted by a rising Iraqi insurgency and problems in Afghanistan, and later the Arab Spring and nuclear tensions with Iran, US-Indian relations were no longer a priority. Powell’s request to meet with Modi may signal that Washington is again ready to expend the effort necessary to expand relations with India.
However, it would be incorrect to suggest that U.S. ambitions in India were simply left in stasis as the United States worked on managing not only rising unrest in the Middle East but a global economic downturn. Instead, Washington relied on its partners in the Pacific—Japan, South Korea and Australia—to slowly but steadily expand their own bilateral relationships with India.
Though often linked together in the media by a common, if not overtly stated, desire to contain or counter Chinese expansion, these four Asian states have overlapping economic and strategic interests outside of whatever shared threat may be posed by China. Japan has been especially eager to expand bilateral ties with India, and 2014 has already seen high-level delegations from South Korea and Japan, armed with offers of increased investment and bilateral coordination in regional matters and defense, travel to New Delhi.
India’s position in the global economy, proximity to the instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, relatively good relations with Iran and burgeoning ties to Washington’s partners in the Pacific are clear drivers for Washington to want to maintain positive ties with New Delhi. A full change in Modi’s visa status may not happen until after India’s elections; Washington does not want to be perceived as swaying the outcome of the elections. But the United States can no longer leave to chance its relations with India’s future government, whether or not Modi is at the helm. Powell’s visit with Modi will not only be about hedging bets but also about mending fences. New Delhi will have to wait until June to find out who will lead the next government, but it’s already clear that the United States is ready to expand its strategic partnership right now.