(Former US Secretary of State John Kerry at Vibrant Gujarat Summit, 11-13 January 2018)
Curious, isn’t it, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his five-year term with a visa ban on him by the United States and is now ending it with an American ‘boycott’?
The snub publicly administered by Washington by refusing to participate in the Vibrant Gujarat Summit 2019 (January 18-20) can only be deliberate. A high-level delegation from Gujarat held ‘road shows’ in American cities – New York, Chicago, etc. – to drum up interest but of no avail.
The Indians invited the US to be a partner country for the event for the third time consecutively, as on previous two occasions (2015 and 2017). But the answer was ‘Nyet’. The Gujarat organisers are now scurrying to get ‘partner countries’ ranging from Japan and Thailand to Uzbekistan and Denmark.
Wouldn’t the fellows at Foggy Bottom know that Vibrant Gujarat Summit is Modi’s flagship project showcasing his home state’s achievements and seductive business climate before the international audience? Of course, they do. They also know Vibrant Gujarat summits are carefully choreographed events where PM Modi personally takes the role of master of ceremonies. Modi invariably inaugurates the Vibrant Gujarat Summits.
Now, this is the whole point about the American boycott of the upcoming event in January. Washington has held out an astonishing explanation to explain its disinterest in Vibrant Gujarat. They have apparently taken a policy decision that so long as there are unresolved trade issues between the US and India, the US officials wouldn’t waste time and resources on Vibrant Gujarat! The US Consul-General in Mumbai Edward Kagan rubbed salt into the wound saying last week,
“From our standpoint in terms of focusing our resources, one of our critical resources, which is primarily our senior officials, we feel it is very difficult to put people away to take part in something like Vibrant Gujarat (Summit) when we have all these unresolved (trade) issues. We are clear with the Government of Gujarat as well as the Centre (Government of India) that while in principle we recognise that there is value inside Vibrant Gujarat (Summit) for us, it is important to have ultimate progress in the outstanding trade issues before we redirect our focus to be able to think about how we would participate in Vibrant Gujarat (Summit).”
But then, don’t the Americans have ‘trade issues’ with China? In fact, trade issues between the US-India is ‘peanuts’, compared to the epochal tariff war that erupted between the US and China which threatens to bring the roof down on the world economy. Pundits have even speculated that the germane seeds of a New Cold War probably lie in the US-China trade disputes.
Yet, look at the massive participation by American companies in the first China International Import Expo on Nov. 5-10 in Shanghai. Over 180 American companies signed up covering fields such as high-end manufacturing, intelligent equipment, agricultural products, culture and sports. A China hand at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies Sourabh Gupta told Xinhua in an interview, “There was no shortfall of interest in the Chinese market on the part of American companies. To the contrary, there was still great appetite to understand and expand within the market.” (Global Times)
The point is, China is expected to import 10 trillion U.S. dollars worth of goods and services in the next five years and American businessmen want to be on the gravy train. Whereas, no matter what Gandhinagar may say, Americans think Vibrant Gujarat is a charade and a damp squib.
The plain truth is that the US’ main interest in the Indian market is for selling weaponry. It is highly lucrative business and it dovetails with the US strategy to develop ‘interoperability’ between the American and Indian armed forces, which can be leveraged to align India with the US’ geo-strategy. So, when it comes to arms sales, Americans know how to massage the Indian ego. See how charming they can be while courting Rakhsha Mantri Nirmala Sitharaman to persuade her to buy weapons from American vendors.
Interestingly, the US began partnering the Vibrant summit in 2015 after Modi became the PM. In fact, then Secretary of State John Kerry visited Gandhinagar and spoke at the inaugural event in January 2015. Of course, it was a typically smart American move to cultivate Modi early in his term as PM. The US’ expectations from Modi were high at that point in time, following his visit to the US in September 2015 and Barack Obama’s return visit as chief guest at the Republic Day ceremony in 2015. (Remember the ride in the Beast that Obama arranged for Modi?)
(Obama & Modi in the Beast, Washington, Sept 2015)
But the Americans feel let down that Modi didn’t rise quite up to their expectations — or even feel peeved that Modi is a great practitioner of the art of flattery himself, his thoughtful invitation to Trump to a repeat show at Republic Day in January 2019 testifies.
Indian democracy is unpredictable. And in the event of Modi winning a second term as PM, Americans can always return with a bang to Vibrant Gujarat 2021. Who knows, the POTUS may even visit Gandhinagar for the occasion.