As America’s unipolar dominance draws to an end, it is vital for multicultural, democratic India to emerge as a focus of global power
Rings on her fingers, bells on her toes / She shall have music wherever she goes. That sort of constant accompaniment of sweet, celebratory sound happens only to characters in nursery rhymes and fairytales — with one exception: the leaders of nations. When they go visiting other nations, they are received with drum rolls, trumpet flourishes and peals of laughter from gushing first ladies — that is, when the host nation is keen to improve ties with the visiting leader’s nation. The context, rather than the personality of the visitor, makes all the difference.
India’s tallest leader has been Mahatma Gandhi — no other leader has won the hearts of as large a proportion of Indians, rallied to his calls to action or to desist, or shaped and embodied the collective will as Gandhiji had had. Yet, when he visited London to take part in Round Table conferences, he was jeered at as a half-naked fakir, not feted as the Mahatma.
When Jawaharlal Nehru visited the US in 1949, he was granted a ticker-tape parade in New York, a rare celebration reserved for exceptional individuals. Nehru was then leading the largest democracy in the world, standing as a bulwark against the Communist wave sweeping across newly decolonising Asia.
Narendra Modi, who has now been accorded a state visit and an address to a joint session of Congress, had been denied a visa in 2005.
The China factor
The context determines the nature of the reception. Today, the US has identified China as its systemic rival, and is trying to contain its growth by denying it access to key technologies that could be used to make advances in artificial intelligence, quantum communications and quantum computing, deemed vital to shaping new strategic capability. The US wants to end the concentration of supply chains in China and seeks to redistribute them to other economies. While Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have gained from such diversification, no country offers the scope that India does to this end, in terms of manpower and brainpower.
India is a regional giant of the Indo-Pacific region. The stronger India becomes militarily and economically, the greater the chances of China’s rise being contained within a zone of non-aggression. As America’s unipolar dominance draws to an inevitable, albeit reluctant, end, it is vital for multicultural, democratic India to emerge as a focus of global power, along with several others, to keep the world peaceful.
As Obama had said in 2009, toasting Manmohan Singh at a state banquet, close relations between the US and India would be a defining partnership of the 21st century. Biden is following up on that insight, when he woos India, through Prime Minister Modi.
What Modi’s visit means
Modi has concluded a successful visit, signing deals in defence and technology, meeting big company bosses, strengthening the self-esteem of Indian Americans and, thereby, increasing India’s soft power, making a decent speech to US legislators that offered principles worded ambiguously enough to accommodate pro-Russian as well as pro-Ukraine narratives, using miles instead of kilometres, explaining the diversity of India and its rich history of coexistence and the rapid advance India has made in adopting and absorbing digital technologies in governance and commerce and even reciting a poem that he had penned, apart from some lines from American poet Amanda Gorman.
Not that the speech was wholly devoid of discordant notes, at least for the domestic audience. When he waxed eloquent on the role of women in India’s endeavours, spanning women sages of Vedic times to combatants in the armed forces and leaders of the Mars mission, the reality of his party’s patronage of a powerful politician accused by women wrestlers of sexual harassment grated against this vaunted claim of women’s empowerment. Talk of India’s tradition of inclusion and coexistence choked in the smoke of a still-burning Manipur and his guiding ideology’s commitment to building a Hindu rashtra rather than democracy.
In the land of the free and home of the brave, Modi boldly took questions from the press: a hostile question from the Wall Street Journal on democracy and an obliging request to elaborate on India’s climate action, from an Indian journalist. Since follow-up questions were not in the reckoning, Modi could afford to respond with vanilla homilies about India and democracy, without worrying about the mismatch between precept and practice.
GE-HAL crucial deal
While the transfer of jet engine technology from GE to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd for the latter’s Tejas Mk 2 fighter aircraft is the most significant tangible gain from the Prime Minister’s US visit, it would be useful to acknowledge the limits of the deal. The proposal, yet to win Congressional support, is to scale up the agreement to transfer 58% of the engine technology made in the 2012 deal to transfer 80% of the tech now. Total transfer of the technology, as operational in India’s joint venture with Russia to produce the Brahmos cruise missiles, is still not on the cards.
Further, the F414 is a three-decade-old engine, with the likes of the F135 that powers the later generation F35 fighter craft, having achieved higher levels of performance. F135 is made by Pratt & Whitney, which was chosen over the F136 designed by GE and Rolls Royce.
Perhaps, India could make a pitch for completing development of the F136 engine for the more advanced fighters being planned by HAL. The founding chief of NTPC, who went on to become power secretary, DV Kapur, has an interesting thought on the subject. Industrial gas turbines and jet engines are variations of the same bit of engineering. Therefore, suggests Mr Kapur, the gas turbine division of Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd based in Hyderabad, should collaborate with HAL’s Koraput engine division to absorb and develop the jet engine technology being transferred.
Even if these two divisions are not hived off from the parent companies and merged, as Mr Kapur suggests, they could together float a company to develop jet engines, drawing on existing expertise and the latest advances in computer modelling, materials, surface treatment, casting and forging. The world could do with choice beyond GE, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney and CFM-Safran, for commercial jets as well as warplanes.
Micron’s decision to set up a testing and packaging unit in India is welcome, but is not quite the same thing as acquiring immunity against any denial of semiconductors or semiconductor technology at a crucial time, even if such denial is a remote possibility. India has developed its own Navik geolocation satellites to guard against the remote possibility of being denied access to American GPS.
Battle for satellite slots
India joining the US-led Artemis accords on space takes clear sides in the coming battle over allocation of satellite slots in low earth orbits. Low earth orbit (Leo) satellites are the workhorses of low-latency satellite broadband, the cheapest way to connect remote areas, and to provide a back-up (redundancy, in the jargon) in case cables are sabotaged. American companies are usurping most Leo slots and the Chinese are beginning to object. India is making it clear where it stands on this. Having shown partisanship, India must also act to ensure equitable access to space for all people.
Prime Minister Modi’s hobnobbing with the great and the good of America Inc as part of the state visit would serve, at the least, to reaffirm US business confidence in the Indian economy and sound relations between the two countries.
Overall, the visit advances India’s importance as a balancing power in the world, and India has had to give away very little on any vital interest of its own. No one has challenged its right to import oil from Russia while arguing against war and for peace, for example.
The article was first published in The Federal as Modi’s US visit was a success, but then America needs India now on June 25, 2023.
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