Modi Obama Talks in Washington DC

Looking Close into the Outcomes

Sukla Sen

Narendra Modi


The Indian media has, not too unexpectedly, drummed up a lot of hype1 around incumbent Indian Prime Minister Modi’s trip to the US (Sept. 26 – 30)2.

The high (or low?) point of his (drab) speech, on Sept. 27, to the United Nations General Assembly, with a large number of empty seats3 greeting him deferentially, was understandably his plea for having an International Yoga Day, sponsored by the UN4. The extravaganza, or tamasha, at the Madison Square Garden5 the next day, with an adoring crowd of 18,000 plus Indian-Americans, and some protesters outside, is, however, by far the most talked of event of his programmes in New York.

In Washington DC, he had two rounds of talks with the US President Barack Obama – on the 29th evening, at a “private dinner” hosted by Obama in his honour – attended by a few other state functionaries from both the sides, and then again the next morning. Official communiques immediately followed each of these two rounds of talks. So we have the outcomes of these talks fairly well documented.6,7,8
Two side stories perhaps deserve a mention in this context, more so given the orchestrated hype (in India). One, the First Lady Michelle Obama gave a quiet miss to the “private dinner”9, understandably something rather unusual. (That there was no state banquet, as is quite customary for visiting foreign dignitaries, is of course just yet another matter.) Two, the next morning, Obama personally accompanied the visitor at the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial10. That was also apparently unscheduled.

Be that as it may, the first round of talks was followed by the release of a joint statement and the second one with two press releases – one consisting of two separate sets of comments, one each by both leaders, at a joint press briefing and the other one – again another joint statement. The first joint statement is labelled as a Vision Statement for the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership – “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go”. The second one is captioned as U.S.-India Joint Statement (on the US government website). Apart from these, there was was also a joint Opinion piece11 by Narendra Modi and Barack Obama, carried by The Washington Post on its Sept. 30 edition.

A review12 of the “joint statement”, carried on October 2 by the Economic Times, penned by Kanwal Sibal, a former Indian Foreign Secretary and no Modi-baiter by any stretch, is particularly illuminating. First, let us look at his concluding comments about the trip, which will mark out his position vis-a-vis Modi:
Modi’s visit to the US was a huge publicity success for him and India. He electrified the Indian American community, his joint editorial with Obama was a coup and so was Obama’s personal gesture to accompany him to the Martin Luther King memorial. Modi came across as self-assured and projected a confident India.
He stood his ground on difficult issues with the US, without feeling compelled to earn Obama’s goodwill, consistent with his “India First” policy. This also means resolving problems with the US remain difficult, despite positive intentions.

Now let’s come to his observations on the “joint statement”:
In the joint statement essentially decisions to set up mechanisms to deal with knotty issues figured. In other words, breakthroughs have been postponed, not achieved [emphasis added]. For instance, both sides “will facilitate” actions to increase trade five-fold.
They “pledged” to establish an Indo-US Investment Initiative and an Infrastructure Collaboration Platform to develop and finance infrastructure. India has “offered” US industry lead partnership in developing three smart cities. On the bitter WTO wrangle, the officials were “directed to consult urgently” on the next steps.
They “committed to work” through the Trade Policy Forum to promote an attractive business environment and to establish an annual high-level Intellectual Property (IP) Working Group with “appropriate” decision-making and technical-level meetings.
They “reaffirmed their commitment “to implement fully the U.S.-India nuclear deal and establish a Contact Group to advance this. They “stated their intention” to expand defence cooperation.
While deciding to renew for ten more years the 2005 Framework for the US-India Defence Relations, they (sic) rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes, especially in the South China Sea, is significant, as is exhorting all parties to avoid the use of force in advancing their claims.

That appears to be quite a fair presentation, coming from one who is every inch an Establishment man with high praise for Modi. The review quite aptly underlines the profusion of “pledge”, “offer”, “intention”, “commitment” and the likes, and relative absence of finalised decisions.


We’ll, at our end, take up here only a few selected issues for closer examination.

One, the civil nuclear cooperation, arguably the most trumpeted one, in the run up to the trip. The Vision Statement limits itself to just blandly asserting: “We will partner to ensure that both countries have affordable, clean, reliable, and diverse sources of energy, including through our efforts to bring American-origin nuclear power technologies to India.” The Joint Statement issued next day, however, provides: “The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to implement fully the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement.  They established a Contact Group on advancing the implementation of civil nuclear energy cooperation in order to realize early their shared goal of delivering electricity from U.S.-built nuclear power plants in India.  They looked forward to advancing the dialogue to discuss all implementation issues, including but not limited to administrative issues, liability, technical issues, and licensing to facilitate the establishment of nuclear parks, including power plants with Westinghouse and GE-Hitachi technology.” Given the fact that the India-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement was signed way back in 2008, on October 10, this evidently does not mark any remarkable progress, to put it rather mildly. (That is of course something not too unwelcome from the viewpoint of anti-nuke activists and those who had opposed the 2008 Agreement13, in the first place. Even then, the categorical inclusion of “liability” among “issues” to be deliberated by the “Contact Group” deserves special attention.) Interestingly, at the joint press briefing, while Obama, in his initial remarks, refrained from touching upon this issue, Modi, in his response did talk on this: “We are serious about resolution of issues on both sides [emphasis added] to enable civilian nuclear energy cooperation to take off.  It is important for India’s energy security.” There are perhaps two conceivable explanations for this proactive response. One, Modi wanted to impress upon Obama, and the US public, to take the next necessary step to make the ball rolling. Two, it was just a defensive response. While accepting that the onus (mainly) lies with him, he’s trying to reassure his host that he’d see to it that (corrective) action is taken in the not too distant future. Not being privy to the discussions held during the “bilateral meet”, one can only speculate.

On a somewhat related issue, the Joint Statement informs: “As a critical step in strengthening global nonproliferation and export control regimes, the President and Prime Minister committed to continue work towards India’s phased entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group.  The President affirmed that India meets MTCR requirements and is ready for membership in the NSG.  He supported India’s early application and eventual membership in all four regimes.” [All emphases added.] So, even here, from the viewpoint of the Indian Establishment there is really nothing to write home about.

Then let’s take up the issue of the stalled Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) – stalled because of Indian objection at the WTO, linking it to the final settlement of the pending issue of food subsidy/security. There is just nothing in the Vision Statement. Similarly, there is nothing in Obama’s opening remarks, the next day. Again, it was Modi, in his response, raised the issue upfront: “We had a candid discussion on Bali ministerial of the WTO.  India supports trade facilitation.  However, I also expect that we are able to find a solution that takes care of our concern on food security.  I believe that it should be possible to do that soon.” The Joint Statement, in this regard, is rather interesting: “The leaders discussed their concerns about the current impasse in the World Trade Organization and its effect on the multilateral trading system, and directed their officials to consult urgently along with other WTO members on the next steps [emphases added].” So, that means, till date, there is no change either in the Indian or in the US position. Things stand, more or less, where they stood before the talks.

Then let’s look at the Framework Agreement for defence cooperation between the two nations. The Vision Statement avers: “Our strategic partnership is a joint endeavor for prosperity and peace. Through intense consultations, joint exercises, and shared technology, our security cooperation will make the region and the world safe and secure. [Emphasis added.] Together, we will combat terrorist threats and keep our homelands and citizens safe from attacks, while we respond expeditiously to humanitarian disasters and crises.  We will prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and remain committed to reducing the salience of nuclear weapons, while promoting universal, verifiable, and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament.” (The bit on “universal, verifiable, and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament” is too obviously just some ritualistic hot air.) And, the next day, Modi pronounces: “Given our broad range of shared interests, we will also continue to beef up our security dialogue and defense relations [emphasis added]. I want to especially welcome the U.S. defense companies to participate in developing the Indian defense industry.” On this, the Joint Statement is fairly elaborate:

To facilitate deeper defense cooperation, they welcomed the decision to renew for ten more years the 2005 Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship and directed their defense teams to develop plans for more ambitious programs and activities. The two leaders also agreed to reinvigorate the Political-Military Dialogue and expand its role to serve as a wider dialogue on export licensing, defense cooperation and strategic cooperation.
The leaders welcomed the first meeting under the framework of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative in September 2014 and endorsed its decision to establish a Task Force to expeditiously evaluate and decide on unique projects and technologies which would have a transformative impact on bilateral defense relations and enhance India’s defense industry and military capabilities.

As regards the renewal of the Agreement, which the US and India had entered into in 2005 – for a period of ten years, three (somewhat conflicting) news reports are of relevance and interest.

  1. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama on Tuesday renewed the defence agreement between India and the US for a further ten-year period.

Addressing the media after holding bilateral talks at the White House here, Prime Minister Modi said, “India and the US have decided to renew the Framework Agreement for defence cooperation between the two nations for a further period of ten years.”

“The US will cooperate as a knowledge partner for our plans of creating a National Defence University,” Prime Minister Modi added.14

  1. US-India defence relationship may turn out to be fruitful in the middle-to-long term, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington this week has more intentions than tangible outcomes.

Without any high-visibility signings of agreements and contracts, the two sides apparently resorted to diplomatic subterfuge to make an agreement under negotiation appear like a major step forward.15

  1. India and US have in principle agreed to extend their defence agreement for another 10 years which will take forward the cooperation between the two countries in the crucial area.

Sources in the Department of Defence said, “we are still negotiating the framework agreement (defence) but have not finished.” Pentagon sources said it was happening.16

The third one is perhaps the closest to the mark. More importantly, while the Joint Statement talks of “a transformative impact on bilateral defense relations and enhance India’s defense industry and military capabilities”, which is no doubt quite noteworthy, but, one has to also keep in mind that having defence ties with the US did not prevent India from being very much one of the five BRICS member, nor stopped it from applying for the full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) – a security grouping dominated by China, and Russia17, nor from receiving the Chinese President just the other day in India with considerable fanfare, nor from toying with the idea of joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), led by China, as the second largest shareholder18. And renewal of an agreement already in place for near about ten years is hardly any big deal by itself. So, there appears to be as yet no appreciable change in gear, let alone direction, in this area post regime change. Of course, inviting FDI in production of armaments and other military hardware is an entirely new initiative. It’s admittedly a new ballgame. And, moreover, the “transformative impact on bilateral defense relations” that has been talked of has got to be closely watched in terms of actual developments. It, however, deserves to be noted that there is as yet no response, irate or otherwise, from the other global stakeholders.

On another significant issue, the Joint Statement states: “Agreeing on the need to foster innovation in a manner that promotes economic growth and job creation, the leaders committed to establish an annual high-level Intellectual Property (IP) Working Group with appropriate decision-making and technical-level meetings as part of the Trade Policy Forum.” And the Congress spokesperson Anand Sharma has, as a consequence, reportedly attacked Modi “for “withdrawing”, ahead of his US visit, an order which empowered the drug pricing authority of powers to cap prices of non-essential drugs and then during his visit deciding to set up, in collaboration with the US, a high-level working group on intellectual property to sort out issues which have been hampering investments.”19 “”This is a major compromise of our consistently held position that India is TRIPS-compliant and would not discuss IPR in any bilateral forum,” he said.”20 That appears to be a pretty much disturbing development, even more so as some drug prices have risen astronomically because of the referred order issued ahead of Modi’s US visit21.

On the issue of protection of environment, the Vision Statement promises: “Climate change threatens both our countries, and we will join together to mitigate its impact and adapt to our changing environment.  We will address the consequences of unchecked pollution through cooperation by our governments, science and academic communities. We will partner to ensure that both countries have affordable, clean, reliable, and diverse sources of energy, including through our efforts to bring American-origin nuclear power technologies to India.” And, the Joint Statement elaborates, at quite considerable length (in addition to dwelling on the issue of cooperation on nuclear energy, dealt with here earlier):

Recognizing the critical importance of increasing energy access, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving resilience in the face of climate change, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi agreed to a new and enhanced strategic partnership on energy security, clean energy, and climate change.  They agreed to strengthen and expand the highly successful U.S.-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) through a series of priority initiatives, including a new Energy Smart Cities Partnership to promote efficient urban energy infrastructure; a new program to scale-up renewable energy integration into India’s power grid; cooperation to support India’s efforts to upgrade its alternative energy institutes and to develop new innovation centers; an expansion of the Promoting Energy Access through Clean Energy (PEACE) program to unlock additional private sector investment and accelerate the deployment of cost-effective, super-efficient appliances; and the formation of a new Clean Energy Finance Forum to promote investment and trade in clean energy projects.
Both leaders are committed to working towards a successful outcome in Paris in 2015 of the conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including the creation of a new global agreement on climate change.
The leaders recalled previous bilateral and multilateral statements on the phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).  They recognized the need to use the institutions and expertise of the Montreal Protocol to reduce consumption and production of HFCs, while continuing to report and account for the quantities reduced under the UNFCCC.  They pledged to urgently arrange a meeting of their bilateral task force on HFCs prior to the next meeting of the Montreal Protocol to discuss issues such as safety, cost, and commercial access to new or alternative technologies to replace HFCs.  The two sides would thereafter cooperate on next steps to tackle the challenge posed by HFCs to global warming.
They launched a new U.S.-India Partnership for Climate Resilience to advance capacity for climate adaptation planning, and a new program of work on air quality aimed at delivering benefits for climate change and human health.
They also launched a new U.S.-India Climate Fellowship Program to build long-term capacity to address climate change-related issues in both countries.  The President and Prime Minister instructed their senior officials to work through the U.S.-India Energy Dialogue, U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Combating Climate Change, and other relevant fora to advance these and other initiatives.
The leaders welcomed the conclusion of a Memorandum of Understanding between the Export-Import Bank and the Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency, which would make up to $1 billion in financing available to bolster India’s efforts to transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient energy economy, while boosting U.S. renewable energy exports to India.  The two leaders reiterated the importance of conserving India’s precious biodiversity and agreed to explore opportunities for collaboration on national parks and wildlife conservation.

Here, as we can see, is a lot of emphasis on new investments in “clean energy” and also the promise of financing up to US $ 1 billion. What, however, needs be specifically watched that given the strong differences between India (and China), representing one pole of the global debate, and the US, the other, as regards the responsibility of various nations to cut down carbon emissions how the commitment “to working towards a successful outcome in Paris in 2015 of the conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including the creation of a new global agreement on climate change” works out in actual practice. Modi’s comments on this issue, in this context, deserve special attention: “We have agreed to consult and cooperate closely on climate change issues, an area of strong priority for both of us [emphasis added].” It’d not be out of place to recall what he had said only too recently to the national audience through a live televised broadcast: “There is no climate change but only “our tolerance and habits” have changed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday [Sept. 5 2014]”22. Any further comment would be superfluous.


To sum up, the Joint Statement is no doubt a lengthy document (of near about 3,500 words), on the face of it quite an ambitious one – a rather elaborate blueprint for significantly expanding the US footprints in India in a wide range of sectors including economic, diplomatic, military, education, urban development, education, health, ecology etc. But as Kanwal Sibal, cited at the very beginning of this review, has rightly brought out that these are mostly intentions, as of now. It may, however, be pointed out here that this is quite in tandem with the goal set out in the Indian President’s address, on June 9 2014, to the joint session of the Parliament at the very commencement of the current regime: “India and the United States have made significant progress in developing strategic partnership over the years. My government will bring a renewed vigour to our engagement and intensify it in all areas, including trade, investment, science and technology, energy and education.”23  The Joint Statement also shows up that considerable differences still remain between the two countries on a number of issues which are being attempted to be resolved/reconciled. There is of course no big bang announcement and nothing even remotely comparable with the one on Indo-US civilian nuclear cooperation in 2005. While wishes are definitely not horses, intentions nevertheless play a critical role in shaping and reshaping the future. That has got to be kept in mind in the given context.

Before we finally wrap up, let’s turn our attention to a part of the concluding remark made by Obama at the joint press briefing:

And throughout this conversation I’ve been impressed with the Prime Minister’s interest in not only addressing the needs of the poorest of the poor in India and revitalizing the economy there, but also his determination to make sure that India is serving as a major power [emphases added] that could help bring about peace and security for the entire world.
So I want to wish him luck in what I’m sure will be a challenging but always interesting tenure as Prime Minister in India [emphasis added].

One only wonders whether it’s a genuine appreciation of (what he sees as) Modi’s visionary leadership or just a tongue-in-cheek comment on his guest’s (perceived) megalomania.
06 10 2014

Notes and References:

1. See, for example: <>, <>.

2. Ref.: <>.

3. Ref.: <>.

4. Ref., for example: <>. Also see: <>.

5. See, for example: <> and <>.

6. See: <>.
7. See: <>.

8. See: <>.

9. See, for example: <>.

10. See, for example: <>.

11. See: <>.

12. See: <>.

13. See, for example: <>.
14. Source: <>.
15. Source: <>.
16. Source: <>.

17. Ref.: <>.

18. See: <>.
19. See: <>.
20. See: <>.
21. See: <>.
22. Source: <>.

23. Ref.: para 47 at <>. One is, however, advised to refer to para 44-47, all together, to have a more meaningful view.