India’s New President and What It Means for US-India Relations

On May 26, 2014 India swore in it’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi in a decisive victory, with a record 66% of the electorate voting at the polls.  Nonetheless, Modi is regarded as a wild card by the international community, given his record.  As a member of India’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s new prime minister has drawn comparisons to Ronald Reagan, Ariel Sharon, Barack Obama and Shinzo Abe, to Slobodan Milosevic, Margaret Thatcher and Vladimir Putin.  However it remains to be seen whether he will actually live up to any of these comparisons.

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As chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, Modi became a controversial figure in the West in 2002 after riots between Hindus and Muslims resulted in over 1000 deaths including 800 Muslims.  Modi was accused of allowing Hindus to attack Muslims in revenge after a train with Hindu pilgrims caught fire.  Although Modi was never charged in the Indian court system, he drew condemnation from western leaders.  Since then the West has slowly re-embraced Modi, save the United States which leaves leaders on both sides wondering how Modi’s rise to the head of India’s government will affect relations between the world’s largest democracies.  US president Barack Obama did call to congratulate Modi on his historic victory and invited him to the White House but the travel ban officially remains in place.  (However the ban is meaningless now since Modi has diplomatic immunity as a world leader.)

Despite his religious fervor, Modi’s campaign emphasized his economic success as chief minister of Gujarat for residents of all faiths.  Under his leadership Gujarat experienced the highest rate of economic growth in the country by making it an attractive place for business.  Modi is now poised to replicate this success across all of India and bring in foreign investment and combat corruption.  When criticized, Modi expresses his desire to bring prosperity to all Indians, not religion or caste specific and to cultivate strong economic ties with India’s neighbors.  So while a religious figure, the draw to Modi was secular and economic based.  India is a country with untapped economic potential as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates its economy will grow experienced increased growth in 2015.

The US has supported and continues to support world leaders with worse records than Modi, so to shun him is hypocritical.  Unlike some of them Modi was legitimately elected prime minister.  He has the consent of India’s electorate and will be held accountable if he lives up to his promises.

More importantly if the US ‘pivot to Asia’ is to be taken seriously, it does America no good to isolate the largest democracy in the world.  Indian and American geopolitical interests are too similar.  For example, Modi promised to take a tougher stand with China.  American interests in Asia have a better chance of succeeding with as many alliances as possible.  Now with Russia and China moving closer and China’s neighbors worried about its rise, India with its large population and untapped potential already has Japan calling India a counter-balance to China.

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