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Prime Minister Modi and the U.S.: First a Visa. What Is in the Cards Next?

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Before Narendra Modi was elected Prime Minister of India, it was widely reported that he had been denied a visa to visit the United States in 2005 because he did not intervene to stop bloody riots in which over 1,000 Muslims were killed in his state of Gujarat. There was speculation that the visa issue could become a stumbling block in terms of establishing relations with the new prime minister.

President Obama took that speculation off the table immediately after Modi won the election by a landslide by reaching out to congratulate him and extending an offer to visit the United States using a diplomatic visa. With that matter set aside, the question is what is in the cards next for the U.S. relations with Modi and India.

Speaking on behalf of President Obama as Modi was sworn in, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney stated, "We look forward to working closely with the new government to continue to strengthen and expand the U.S.- India strategic partnership for years to come."

It is no secret that that partnership and U.S. Indian relations have been a bit strained as of late. Even though bilateral trade has been increasing steadily, major differences have emerged between the two nations in areas such as intellectual property rights, lack of progress in the implementation of civil nuclear issues and America's crackdown on Indian companies dependent on H1-B visas, among other issues.

In addition, there was considerable acrimony in India over the arrest and eventual deportation of one of its diplomats, Devyani Khobragade, in New York a few months ago. There were tit-for-tat moves on the part of India, such as removing the security barricade in front of the US embassy in Delhi and taking away any non-reciprocal privileges American diplomats enjoyed in India.

Modi's victory and his emphasis on economic development and business-like approach to governing provide an important opportunity to push the reset button and to reinvigorate this partnership. There is almost universal consensus that doing so is important for both India and the United States -- although there is a little skepticism on how strong that relationship will become.

For example, Michael Kugelman, senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars opines, "The U.S. and India aren't destined to be strategic partners. Yet they can and should enjoy healthy relations..." In an article written before the election results were announced, Ashley J. Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace observes that, "Only successful reciprocity... can slowly improve what could otherwise become a productive yet joyless bilateral relationship that comes to represent a lost opportunity for both countries."

The good news is that both Kugelman and Tellis frame what should be a worst case scenario for U.S.-India relations going forward. The relationship might only be "healthy" or it might merely be "productive yet joyless". The best case scenario, on the other hand, is that the relationship has the potential to be "strategic" and "joyful".

The question is what needs to be done to achieve that potential. In our opinion, it begins with recognizing that this is a pivot point and quickly mobilizing the resources to think and plan strategically and collaboratively with India to determine what actions to take to forge an enhanced and expanded relationship.

There are a number of organizations and individuals who have already provided initial recommendations that can be considered in that process. As examples,
  • Alyssa Ayres of the Council for Foreign Relations advocates "an open trade door in New Delhi."
  • Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation suggests "reinvigorating the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative between the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Indian National Security Advisor."
  • Anish Goel of the New America Foundation proposes "allowing private firms to work out their own business and investment relationships."
  • Rudra Chaudhuri of the India Institute at Kings College London argues "There is an urgent need to address differences pertaining to intellectual property standards."

In his inaugural address to the 16th Lok Sabha on June 9, President Pranab Mukherje stated, "India and the United States have made significant progress in developing a strategic partnership over the years. My government will bring a renewed vigor to our engagement and intensify it in all areas including trade, investment, science and technology, energy and eduation."

The stage for a strategic partnership has been set. There is no dearth of ideas and there are long-standing issues that need to be prioritized and addressed.

What is required at this juncture is a comprehensive and objective situational assessment of the current state of U.S. India relations and the development of a strategic plan targeted at the critical few areas that are most important to the mutual interests of the United States and India.

A shared strategic plan is essential for a strategic partnership. It provides the framework for translating concepts into actions and managing for results.

It is not a guarantee of positive outcomes, however. But, it does start to stack the deck.

It moves things beyond the Visa. And, when that plan is created jointly by both partners, it significantly increases the chance for joy to be in the cards for both DC and New Delhi.