28 Sep 2021 21:09 IST

What did Modi’s visit to the White House mean?

US President Joe Biden meets with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Oval Office at the White House.   -  REUTERS

The meeting failed to address many pressing issues — Afghanistan, global climate change, and H1B permits

When PM Modi visited the White House last week, we learned that President Biden had some legacy familial connections with India. In a private meeting with VP Kamala Harris, Modi invited her to visit India. Indians “are waiting to welcome you” and you are “the source of inspiration for so many people across the world.” These soft touches of diplomacy aside, the visit did not accomplish much.

On vaccines, the gap between the wealthiest nations and the poorest continues to grow. Covid cases are dropping in India but vaccination rates are still lagging behind other countries. The US has fully vaccinated 56 per cent of its population; India, only, 16 per cent. The two countries are the world’s largest producers of vaccines.

Afghanistan, undiscussed

Biden, the respected former Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was offered the VP spot on the Obama ticket because Obama lacked foreign policy experience when he ran in 2008. But Biden’s foreign policy record is poor. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” said Robert Gates who served as defense secretary under Obama-Biden during the first Obama term after being in the same role under Bush 43 during his second term.

The Afghan mess did not come up in public conversation during the Biden-Modi bilateral summit. America’s rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan has left the Taliban not only in power but with an arms cache valued at over $80 billion, including military aircraft. India had invested heavily ($3 billion) in Afghanistan and was the second-largest non-western power to send so much money to this landlocked country. India had fought for influence too, sending teachers, and technical experts, and even financing the construction of Afghanistan’s parliament building. But India’s strong footprint vanished in a matter of weeks as it hastily evacuated personnel.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s ISI, which stayed away from Afghanistan during the US occupation is now calling the shots in Kabul and was rumoured to be heavily involved in the creation of the new Taliban government. Worse, China has now become the region’s dominant power with its One Belt One Road initiative.

H1Bs, a focus area

That Modi was able to attend the meeting at all shows India’s maturity as a growing world power. Under prior administrations in the 1970s, India would have abstained from a bilateral meeting to voice its protest for how a hasty withdrawal has completely upended the region.

On visa issues, the meeting produced no result, but thanks to UK PM Boris Johnson’s first meeting with Biden a few days earlier, the thorniest obstacle had been resolved before Modi arrived at the White House. The US government had lifted the travel ban on many countries including India, allowing fully vaccinated travellers to fly to America. A negative RT-PCR test is still required.

Modi stated again the human capital strength of the 4 million-strong Indian diaspora in the United States. But the larger issue about H1Bs and Green Cards remains, and the recent move by the Senate Parliamentarian that immigration cannot be included in the massive $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill is a huge blow to the Indian diaspora.

In March, Biden had pushed through a bill in the House to provide work authorisation to H1B children and allow them to stay on their parents’ H1B applications, but by including his proposals along with relief for children who were brought into America illegally, the bill is going nowhere. With Haitians now rolling across the southern border, the administration seems to have no clue on how to solve the migrant crisis. Experts say that more than 1½ million illegal immigrants may have crossed into America since Biden took office. Indians warily ask why they should always be penalised when they do everything according to the law, while those who break the law seem to get all the attention.

Modi-US relationship

During remarks in front of reporters, Modi insisted that India’s technological prowess can work to complement America’s own. Yet, two days before the summit, the White House announced the names of 30 of America’s most distinguished leaders in science and technology as members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Not one of them is an Indian or Indian American. This choice is a serious departure from private industry that has recognised the contributions of Indian Americans in the STEM fields. Think Google and Microsoft.

Talk about global climate change was just that. Talk. No verifiable agreements came out.

On the personal front, Modi has had a rocky relationship with Obama-Biden as early as when he was running to be India’s PM in 2013. The US government refused to acknowledge his candidacy and continued to place a tourist visa ban on Modi, first put into place by President George W Bush in 2005. At issue, of course, was Modi’s alleged handling of the Gujarat riots when he was its Chief Minister. Although Modi had actually been absolved of all charges in April 2013 by the Indian Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team, the US continued to enforce its tourist visa ban reducing him to the same status as rogue Middle East leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi.

The then US ambassador, Nancy Powell, invited Modi to visit her in Delhi as the first step to normalizing relations with him. Modi correctly refused as a matter of protocol. A person about to be elected as leader of his country doesn’t visit a country’s ambassador, even if the country is the US recognizing her error, Powell made the pilgrimage to Gujarat in February 2014 making a statement that the US planned to work closely with the government that the “Indian people choose.” But cordial though that meeting was, she made no offers to revoke her country’s visa ban. It was only after Modi got elected that the visa ban was lifted in accordance with international law that permits sovereign leaders free passage.

It was little wonder that Modi heartily embraced former President Trump. At the Howdy Modi rally in September 2019, Modi publicly hoped that Trump would be re-elected, to Trump’s delight and against all international standards of protocol.Despite the rhetoric, the needle in India-US relations barely budged.