Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to the US in June will have as much to do with strengthening the ties forged during Barack Obama's presidency as it will have with setting the stage for doing business with the new President who will take office in the US at the end of the year. In what some foreign policy analysts called “unprecedented”, Modi will not only address a joint meeting of the US Congress but also be the guest of honour at a formal lunch hosted by the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan. He will be the first Indian Prime Minister to be invited to such a luncheon. “The friendship between the United States and India is a pillar of stability in an important region of the world. This address presents a special opportunity to hear from the elected leader of the world's most populous democracy on how our two nations can work together to promote our shared values and to increase prosperity. We look forward to welcoming Prime Minister Modi to the United States Capitol,” Ryan has said. Importantly for India - especially as Obama is entering the “lame duck” phase of his presidency - the invitation to Modi has broad bi-partisan support. [caption id="attachment_9261" align="alignleft" width="337"]
Is Obama set to become India's roving ambassador [/caption] “Speaker Ryan's decision to invite Prime Minister Modi to address Congress demonstrates the growing commitment to strengthening the strategic partnership between the US and India,” said Senators Mark Warner and John Cornyn in a joint statement. Warner from the Democratic Party and Cornyn from the Republican Party are co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, the only country-specific caucus in the US Senate. This broad-based support, said one analyst, will ensure continuity in US policies towards India regardless of who - Donald Trump of the Republican Party or Democrat Hillary Clinton - wins the presidential elections in November. Continuity is key Over the last couple of years, India and the US have come closer on issues ranging from geo-politics, defence ties and economic relations. So much so that National Defence Authorisation Act 2017 even talks of treating India at par with Washington's Nato allies on the sale of defence equipment and technology transfer. The legislation is not yet law but has a strong chance of going through. Then, the US and India are close to signing a deal on sharing military logistics and India conducts the highest number of joint military exercises with the US. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had described India and US as “natural allies”. It has taken another BJP Prime Minister to translate that vision into reality. While it is true that Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush also played a big role in bringing the two countries closer, it is the strong personal chemistry that Modi shares with Obama that has led to this strategic clinch. Today, India and the US are on the same page on a range of issues from China to climate change to the need for closer strategic and defence ties. China will obviously feature prominently in Modi's talks with Obama. The US has made it clear that it wants to build up India as a counter-balance to China's rise especially in Asia. India has made it clear that it opposes China's unilateral declaration of sovereignty over South China Sea and has issued joint statements with the US on the issue. But it is also reluctant to be seen to be openly ganging up with the West against China. So, how much of these discussions will be made public isn't clear now. There are, at the same time, considerable irritants as well. The US turning a blind eye to Pakistan's open backing of terrorists targeting India is only the most prominent among them. Modi's agenda The Prime Minister will expect President Obama to intervene strongly to overcome China's objections to India entering the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a full member. Beijing is opposing India's entry into NSG on the grounds that India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Alternatively, it wants Pakistan to also be made a member of this group if India is allowed entry. Membership of NSG, which the US had committed in 2010, will enable India to participate in global nuclear commerce. India is also expected to finalise the deal to buy six Westinghouse nuclear reactors for 6,000 MW Mithi Virdi nuclear power project in Gujarat. This has been hanging fire for almost a decade now because of lack of movement on the Indian side and reluctance of Japan, which supplies some critical technologies for the US reactors to sign a nuclear deal with India. Westinghouse is a wholly owned subsidiary of Japanese conglomerate Toshiba. But with New Delhi finalising internationally acceptable liability norms and Japan signing an N-deal with India last December, the stage is now set for this deal to go ahead. This will be the first practical outcome of the Indo-US nuclear agreement. Despite closer economic ties, US visa procedures and outsourcing norms place Indian IT professionals at a disadvantage. This impacts the fortunes of Indian IT companies that earn as much as 60 per cent of their revenues from the US market. Modi will want Obama to ease these norms to make it easier for Indian companies to compete in the US market. Then, New Delhi has made it clear that it opposes the US plan to supply eight F-16 fighter aircrafts to Pakistan. Lawmakers in the US have placed conditions on the sale, making it clear that the US taxpayer will not subsidise the sale and that Pakistan will have to pay the full market price for the planes. But the Obama administration's active backing for the deal has rankled India and it will be for the President and his team to reassure Modi the US is serious about its strategic ties with India. Defence and space India now wants to operationalise various defence pacts under the Make in India initiative. In particular, it wants help with aircraft engine technology and with technology for aircraft carriers. Then, it also wants the US to ease its entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime. Modi will also discuss with Obama the possibility of enhanced cooperation in space and the use of Indian launchers for US satellites. There have been reports that Boeing is willing to set up an F-18 fighter aircraft production line in India but the sticking point, reportedly, is the technology that the US government is willing to allow Boeing to transfer to India. This issue may also feature in Modi's talks with Obama. Personal relations Both Modi and Obama are known for building and nurturing relations. Given his good personal rapport with the US President, Modi is likely to maintain the friendship even after Obama demits office in November. Since US Presidents are known to play important roles in international diplomacy even after moving out of the White House - a la Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton - Modi may want to use Obama's goodwill to pursue India's strategic and economic goals, especially in Africa. No Indian government has ever tried in the past to use the political capital of former US Presidents for its own diplomatic ends. If Modi can pull it off, it will be a first - and a bold one at that. India and US have without a doubt, come closer economically, strategically, militarily and politically. There are now more areas of convergence and few areas of strong disagreement. Modi's visit to the US, his fourth in two years, will take the relationship forward. "The visit will highlight the deepening of the US-India relationship in key areas," the White House said in a statement recently.