Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forthcoming visit to Washington will provide India and the United States with a golden opportunity to repair their faltering partnership.

Bilateral relations have deteriorated in recent years because of poor policy choices in India on nuclear liability, taxation, and trade. More importantly, India’s recent political paralysis and crumbling economic growth have suppressed the opportunities for more robust commercial ties. In these circumstances, the latter-day approach to India pursued by the administration of US President Barack Obama has not helped. By permitting sectoral interests to define the content of US engagement with India, Washington has allowed a pernicious transactionalism to gradually replace the strategic vision that previously guided the evolution of bilateral relations. This mistake was compounded by the obsessive complaints of senior US government officials about India’s economic policies.

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
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If Modi’s private remarks to visiting American officials recently are any indication, the Indian prime minister seeks to end this stagnation. But his approach, which seemingly centers on soliciting huge international investments for important, high-profile projects at home, offers poor prospects for any deep US involvement that would quickly resuscitate joint cooperation between the two countries.

None of these challenges can be resolved overnight or through a single visit by a prime minister who has had other reasons to nurse personal grievances against the United States. Modi has reached out to Washington, warmly receiving a series of American dignitaries since his accession to office in May 2014. The Obama administration has recognised his efforts and will heartily reciprocate when the prime minister visits on September 29-30. The president will go out of his way to welcome Modi in ways that are atypical for a working visit.

With a little bit of luck, both countries may make sufficient headway to announce ambitious initiatives. These could include US decisions to partner with New Delhi on developing India’s next-generation aircraft carrier, to sell India unconventional oil and gas, or to permit US companies to use Indian space launch services. The United States might also accelerate its efforts to complete India’s integration into the multilateral nonproliferation regimes or decide to deepen meaningful cyberdefense cooperation with India.

Similarly, India could bring to the table important decisions to close on key projects subsumed by the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative or new solutions for overcoming the impasse over the nuclear liability law. India could show a renewed willingness to cooperate on salvaging the Doha round of global trade talks or advancing the common quest for mitigating climate change, or it could recommit to energetic liberalisation at home in ways that open the door for greater American private participation in India’s economic growth.

Even if all these breakthroughs occur — and it would be miraculous if they did — would they suffice to truly transmute bilateral ties into the strategic partnership that both nations have declared is their avowed aim? There is reason to be skeptical, not because these advances are unimportant, but because the relationship has lost the foundational moorings that would otherwise bestow these leaps with strategic significance. So, what must the prime minister actually do?


Modi must build personal relationships with key interlocutors. Although it is true that states ultimately act in accordance with their national interests, their actions at the practical level are coloured deeply by the quality of the private ties enjoyed by their leaders. The extraordinary friendship that developed between the then US deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, and the Indian minister of external affairs, Jaswant Singh, in the aftermath of the 1998 Indian nuclear tests is one such example. That bond may not have resolved the vexatious bilateral dispute over India’s nuclear weapons, but it was critical in shaping Washington’s favourable policy toward New Delhi during the Indo-Pakistani war that followed in the Kargil-Dras sector of Jammu and Kashmir.

Similarly, the US-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement was owed greatly to the deep respect then US president George W Bush had developed for India’s prime minister during his first term, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and his affection for Vajpayee’s successor, Manmohan Singh. This combination of esteem and endearment, which would later mark Obama’s and Singh’s interactions during the global economic crisis, would pave the way for continued advantages to India.

Building a foundation on personal respect and taking the first steps toward friendship will yield benefits for both leaders individually as well as rewards that go beyond the private. In the past, such affinity has induced leaders to walk the extra mile for one another, and that has paid off in dampening national disagreements when they arise, which — in the US-Indian case, they certainly will.

The prime minister should not stop there. The bridges he builds on Capitol Hill will be especially important. Many of those he meets there will be around for the duration of his prime ministerial term, and the congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle remain strong champions of India. In recent years though, their disenchantment with Indian policies has grown, reflecting the wider sentiment throughout official Washington.

Modi needs to charm their socks off. The bipartisan support among American lawmakers for India will be strengthened immensely if the prime minister can convey his determination to set right the relationship in ways that matter to their constituents: by pursuing good policies at home that yield renewed opportunities for business and civil society in the United States. What the US Congress yearns for, more than anything else where India is concerned, is validation that its historic bets on India in recent years — reflected by its willingness to amend laws to uniquely favour New Delhi — were not a mistake.


Modi’s second task is to rejuvenate the concept of a “strategic partnership.” During Vajpayee’s tenure, the US-Indian relationship acquired genuine depth for the first time since the 1962 Sino-Indian War because both sides had a convergent understanding about what a strategic partnership entailed. Shorn of all subtlety, this imperative of geopolitical collaboration was anchored in the mutual desire to preserve a continental balance of power that would prevent Beijing from dominating Asia to the disadvantage of both Washington and New Delhi.

This required honest conversations — and lots of them. Discussions took place between U.S. Ambassador Robert Blackwill and Jaswant Singh; between then Indian national security adviser Brajesh Mishra and his US counterpart Condoleezza Rice; between then US undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith and Indian defense secretary Yogendra Narain; between then US undersecretary of commerce Kenneth Juster and Indian diplomat Jayant Prasad as well as then Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal; and, later, between another Indian foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, and the counselor to the secretary of state, Philip Zelikow.

These talks have never been rivaled — or reprised — in recent years. These discussions involved each side identifying and articulating its own particular interests, but the ensuing conversations were not scripted parleys revolving around the mere recitation of talking points previously cleared by their governments. Rather, they evolved into free-flowing conversations and exchanges of ideas that provided the participants with a deeper insight into why standing policy took the form it did. To her credit, as secretary of state in Obama’s first term, Hillary Clinton tried her best to carry on this tradition, but the absence of suitable Indian counterparts doomed the effort.

Three critical rules of engagement evolved from those early encounters during the Bush-Vajpayee era. Codified in the Rice-Mishra dialogue, these rules took the following form: first, no surprises; second, discuss disagreements vigorously but work to keep them private and contained; third, look for ways to support the other side on issues that deeply matter to it.

Today, US policymakers across a wide spectrum are perplexed by what the phrase “strategic partnership” actually means where India is concerned. Beyond platitudes about democracy and common values, it is important that both sides have an honest conversation about the kind of relationship they seek and what it obligates mutually. If India can achieve the economic and geopolitical success it seeks for its own development, it could in time become a security provider in the Indian Ocean basin, easing US burdens there. India could also effectively partner with the United States in protecting the liberal international order that serves the interest of both countries.

US policymakers today are intensely interested in understanding Modi’s corresponding vision of how the United States fits into India’s conception of the strategic partnership. To the degree that this vision has been articulated at all, it has usually been anchored in an emphasis on Modi’s domestic priorities. In other words, the United States is important to India in that it can support the prime minister’s domestic agenda by serving as a source of capital and technology for the developmental projects Modi seeks to complete at home.

Such a truncated vision of partnership is unlikely to be appealing to Obama or to any of his successors. For starters, as many observers, such as Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania, have pointed out, the ability of the United States to serve today as an official source of capital for India’s development is highly limited. Unlike China and Japan, which possess huge investible reserves, thanks largely to US consumption of their goods, the United States lacks the kind of sovereign wealth funds that would permit it to funnel tens of billions of dollars toward financing Modi’s priority projects.

Where Modi’s conversations with Obama become relevant to the prime minister’s quest is in the area of high technology. That is because the US government retains ultimate control over the transfer of all cutting-edge embodied and disembodied knowledge in the military, dual-use, and some civilian arenas. But herein lies a catch. The United States, as a rule, is loath to part with its most puissant capabilities unless it believes it shares a fundamental affinity of interests with another nation.

Simply contending that the importance of the United States for India derives from the prime minister’s particular domestic priorities is likely to seem quite insipid to his counterparts. Rather, they will want to know how Modi pictures India positioning itself as a partner that is valuable enough to the United States to warrant giving it privileged access to America’s most sophisticated capabilities.

These expectations alter the kind of conversation with which Modi is most familiar. As someone who has built his reputation on getting things done, he is most comfortable thinking of grand change as little other than the successful culmination of a series of specific projects.

Instead, the dialogue will have to be about the highest aims of both sides in a national as well as international context, how each fits into the other’s vision of realising these aspirations, and how they propose to collaborate in achieving these goals despite their particular constraints. Gaining clarity about these fundamental questions is essential to rescuing the bilateral engagement from both derision and vacuity. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there is currently no task more important where rebuilding bilateral ties is concerned: achieve a common understanding of what the strategic partnership entails, and all else follows; fail on that count, and nothing both sides do right on the minutiae will save the transformation.

This article was originally published in the Business Standard.