Never before in human civilisation (yes, never before in human history) have the entire people of planet Earth stopped together at the same time, locked themselves in self-isolations, and retreated into their homes and caves - for 500 days! Due to the pandemic, and in this period, mindsets, priorities and many common assumptions have been disrupted or are newly forming.
Added to the once in century pandemic, is the sudden realisation of the dark clouds of climate change that are now causing floods, wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes that are destroying our homes and lives, almost every day now, in some or other corner of planet Earth.
The above two factors, plus the unprecedented upheavals in geo-politics, including America’s withdrawal from its 20-year long war in Afghanistan, have created a heady cocktail. The world is undergoing a reset, a reboot. This is ‘Year Zero of post-Covid Yug’.
At such a time, what does India need, want from the US, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks into the White House to meet US President Joe Biden?
As the two leaders sit down for discussions, over a glass of lemonade, there is much, very much, riding on the outcomes of this meeting today. Once the 50-minute or so meeting is over, initial judgements of PM Modi, and the Indian PM’s advisors, as they get into their cars, and go back to the W, or for a cuppa coffee at DuPont Circle, or to whichever base-camp that the Indian side has established – will shape India policy with respect to the United States for at least the next decade.
So, what will Modi say, push, persuade, cajole, agree, play hardball with Biden – to achieve the objectives, and worldview of India, in India’s core strategic interests? While yes, also being mindful and amenable, and in fact inviting, to what the United States brings to the table?
What India wants could be listed as below:
1. The small matter of sanctions:
* Purchase of S-400 system from Russia. A minor irritant, but most important of all. This has potential to de-rail, or to cause the double-engine train of US-India to change its track altogether. Russia is under sanctions by the US. India is buying this large-ticket missile defence system from Russia. Is India going to face secondary sanctions from America because of this deal? There is talk of a waiver, or some work-around. The matter should be resolved with clarity and amicably.
* US sanctions on Iran – hurting Indian, and US interests, in heart of Asia. India is being hobbled by US sanctions on Iran. The US too is losing big time in this policy approach. Iran is slowly being drawn into the Chinese orbit. It has signed a large oil and gas deal with China, among other inter-linkages which could soon also see the BRI connectivity via Iran, towards Turkey, and Europe. If US sanctions continue on Iran, then India, and the US will lose ability to introduce even an iota of engagement in the heart of Asia, and any access to this entire geography will be lost for the US and India. The US must consider to reduce, eliminate the sanctions on Iran.
Above two are critical to the core interest of India. Especially, the above mentioned #1 must be resolved during the Modi-Biden meeting today.
2. Next, now there are two big picture questions that Modi may want to be clarified by the time the meeting finishes:
* The first, strangely, is the matter of trust. There is no doubt that America has lost some credibility due to its Afghanistan policy, and the recent ruckus over Aukus is another example. How much can, and should India trust the United States? The civil nuclear deal with the US was the milestone that transformed US-India relations to complete new heights. The deal was for energy sure, but more than that it was a deal that was about atoms for peace and trust between the US and India. Both leaders, Biden and Modi, must make every effort to keep adding to this trust bank.
* The second, is fresh vigour for world leadership, world direction, and world peace. How will the US join India, and India join the US, in promoting a new world order that is non-violent, is peaceful, and where individuals, communities, and nations co-exist in some equilibrium, and abide by a mantra and lifestyle of “Live and Let Live”. US and India can together provide real, positive leadership to the world, and launch a new world spirit in Year Zero of Post-Covid Yug.
Promoting peace between and among nations, religions, cultures, ranging from peace in the Korean Peninsula, to the resolution of conflicts in Africa. And, to invite collaboration of a country like Japan – which has a unique history and approach to peace and non-violence, being the only nation and people ever to have faced a nuclear winter.
3. Next, Modi could, and should explore some secret deal with the US:
* Would it not make sense to keep a contingency plan ready? in case Pakistan implodes into strife and chaos, and extremists, extremist groups stand ready to pounce and scramble away with the nuclear stockpiles of Pakistan? Even if having no much expertise, thanks to Google learning, anyone could make dirty bombs that are radioactive.
* In case of the next Galwan by China, what and how will be the US response? It will be prudent to have some scenarios modelled out in advance so that when, if and next military adventurism comes by China on India’s borders, the advance script between US and India should play out instantly.
The above two, or any other would-be secret deals – not disclosed in the public domain. Perhaps 30-40 years later, when some archives are de-classified, we may learn that such a deal or deals were struck in Year Zero of Post Covid Yug, between Modi and Biden.
4. Next, Modi would of course need to address the issue of Afghanistan, and, Pakistan:
* How will the US stop the export of physical terrorists, munitions, and such, from the boundaries of Afghanistan? Does the US have some strategy, say, something like an “Iron Border Ring” around Afghanistan? How and where can India help in any such containment?
* Modi should offer to provide inputs to the “revision of Pakistan policy” that America is undertaking right now so that the revised American foreign policy is pragmatic with real ability to reduce the Pakistan risk that faces the world. India will like to be invited to provide such inputs before the US policy is finalized.
5. Next, is the matter of climate change:
* India is taking major steps on climate change. How can the US help India to counter the threats of climate change? India needs investments in these areas – what are the investment vehicles that the US is forming, contributing to, and how much of those monies will come to India?
* How can India and the United States, together with give further momentum and global mobilization to mitigate the oncoming dangers of climate change? The International Solar Alliance (ISA) is one important tool in this journey. How will the US contribute further, and more to the ISA?
6. Role of India in QUAD:
* India will like to know what the US envisages as India’s role in the QUAD? Modi will want Biden to articulate an effective, strategic role for India in the QUAD. India would have its own views, which Modi would share with Biden, and want to get his concurrence on those.
* How will the US push American companies to relocate out of China – towards India, for example. Modi will inform Biden of India’s readiness and focus on infrastructure creation so that resilient supply chains can be set up among the QUAD countries – in areas like electronics and semi-conductor chips, pharmaceuticals (special focus on Covid), and green energy, like Hydrogen.
7. Bilateral Trade and Investments:
* There are multiple friction areas in bilateral trade between the US and India. Modi would like the US to be more accommodative to some of India’s concerns so that he can go back with some concrete resolutions to at least some of the issues that are outstanding.
* Boosting of US private sector investments in India. India understands that the US government, unlike the Chinese government, does not have direct access and control on capital for investments overseas. Modi will like to see that Biden plays a proactive role in promoting the US private sector to go to India.
Of course, the two leaders will not end up discussing each of the above items in detail. Their aides would have narrowed down and bubbled up the almost ready talking points, that need an OK from both leaders present, and would have left some 2-3 issues open-ended, on which a Go or a No-Go decision will be taken by the two leaders in this meeting itself.
Whatever be the Go, or No-Go decisions, there is no doubt that the one “Go” decision that both will agree to, will be to have a glass of lemonade during their discussions. After all, if life has handed you a lemon, why not make lemonade?
(The writer is the President of The Imagindia Institute. The views expressed are personal)