The Indian media, coupled with of course the Modi government, is trying to give an impression as if the PM Modi visit was a huge success. It wasn’t as no major deals were signed and the two leaders could not achieve much, except for getting a joint statement issued condemning terrorism. If it is compared with PM Nawaz Sharif’s trip during the same month, then perhaps it was something to write home about.
In a get-to-know-you visit fraught with awkward undertones, President Obama and PM Narendra Modi of India just sought to repair a strained relationship between their nations on September 30, 2014, emerging with expressions of good will but little in the way of concrete deals.
At an Oval Office meeting and during a stroll around the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, President Obama and PM Modi emphasized what they had in common as democratic leaders who overcame personal obstacles, campaigned as outsiders and embraced technology as a vital tool in politics and governing.
But their talks yielded no resolutions to thorny disputes over taxes, trade and civilian nuclear energy cooperation that have divided the United States and India in recent years. And there was little sign that human rights — a particularly sensitive topic for PM Modi, who has been accused of being complicit in deadly anti-Muslim riots — was a major item on the agenda.
“Human rights and the importance of inclusive governance were part of the discussions between the president and the prime minister,” the White House press secretary told reporters. But a statement issued jointly by the United States and India after the talks made no mention of the issue.
The White House has grappled with the perceptions of a visit meant to spotlight the president’s high hopes for working with PM Modi while not lavishing the full measure of White House pageantry on a leader who until recently was barred from entering the United States because of the allegations of human rights abuses more than a decade ago.
Still, in a striking gesture that PM Modi later said gave their relationship a “new dimension,” the president left the White House on September 30 to give Modi a personal tour of the King Memorial, recalling President Obama’s own visit in 2010 to the onetime home in Bombay of Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian champion of democracy and nonviolence who was a model for the American civil rights leader.
At a luncheon at the State Department not long after, PM Modi was effusive in thanking President Obama “from the core of my heart” for leading him around the memorial. “He took out a lot of time,” PM Modi said. “We were together yesterday and today for quite some time, and today in fact he took me around, and with such ease and such humility.”
PM Modi had been denied a visa to visit the United States because of accusations that he failed to stop religious violence in Gujarat in 2002, when he was chief minister there, which took the lives of more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. On Thursday, while PM Modi was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the human rights group American Justice Center filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan against him on behalf of two survivors of the rioting, seeking a judgment that his conduct was tantamount to genocide.
American officials have declined to comment on the case, except to say that sitting heads of government enjoy immunity from lawsuits in American courts. But human rights activists had pressed the Obama administration to get the president to raise the issue with PM Modi while he was in Washington.
If he did, it was in private.
“The purpose of these meetings was to improve U.S.-India relations, so we weren’t expecting Obama to give him the cold shoulder, but we were hoping there would be a little bit of measure in the red-carpet treatment, so we were surprised by the Martin Luther King side visit,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “Delivering a message about human rights is always awkward.”
It was hardly the only tricky element of PM Modi’s visit. Their get-together began on September 29 night with a small dinner in the White House Blue Room that was a protocol nightmare: PM Modi was in the middle of a nine-day fast to observe the Hindu festival of Navratri, but insisted his hosts go ahead and eat. PM Modi sat in front of an empty plate and had warm water for dinner while President Obama and the two leaders’ entourages ate avocados and goat cheese, crisped halibut and basmati rice, a pumpkin crème brûlée and a California chardonnay.
The 20-person dinner was a stark contrast to the lavish affair President Obama threw for PM Modi’s predecessor, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in November 2009, when more than 300 guests dined on arugula salad, curried prawns and pumpkin pie tart at an event whose bill came to more than $570,000.
This two-day meeting did produce some agreements, including the renewal of a 10-year defense cooperation framework, a pact to cooperate on maritime security and several clean-energy initiatives. And as President Obama intensifies the American campaign against the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State, the two agreed to improve their counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing.
“We discussed the issues of trade, issues of making sure that maritime rules are observed, and we discussed how we can continue to work together on a whole host of issues from space exploration, scientific endeavor, to dealing with humanitarian crises like Ebola in West Africa,” President Obama said after a two-hour meeting with PM Modi in the Oval Office.
PM Modi, for his part, said he wanted to resolve disputes that had stalled the implementation of the American-India civilian nuclear agreement and stymied progress on trade. He said the two leaders had a “candid discussion” on trade.
“We already have the foundation of a strong partnership,” PM Modi said. “We now have to revive the momentum and ensure that we get the best out of it for our people and for the world.”