‘Modi is almost certain to be re-elected…’

‘Although perhaps not with a greater majority, and maybe even a slightly reduced majority in the Lok Sabha.’

For Dr Marshall M Bouton, president emeritus of the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, an international affairs think-tank with a special interest in the US-India relations, watching the White House eagerly roll out the red carpet for Prime Minister Narendra D Modi’s State visit, was definitely history in the making.

He also mused to himself if it would be history America might regret.

Was it the ‘real American dream about India’? Or could it crumble?

“I am deeply troubled by what’s happening in India domestically. Deeply. And it just pains me as well as worries me,” Dr Bouton tells Rediff.com‘s Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.

The final segment of a three-part Must Read interview:

  • Part 1 of the Interview: ‘How would America respond if China invades India?
  • Part 2 of the Interview: ‘If US has a conflict with China, where’s India going to be?’

How do you feel Prime Minister Modi is performing in the foreign policy arena? America’s ‘leaning over’ to India is not necessarily Modi driven.
He happens to be the right person in the right place at the right time. Is he perceived as shrewd?

I would give him a lot of credit. There’s a whole bunch of things I would not give him credit for, to the contrary.

But, for instance, the decision to come to the US, three or four months after he became prime minister, despite having been on the bad boy list for years, unable to come to the US.

That was a first indication that he was not going to let his personal grievances and (his) history prevent India from expanding the relationship.

I think where he was not shrewd was in his efforts to make Xi Jinping a friend. You will remember the first key Jinping visit to India in September 2014, while Modi was hosting him in Gujarat, meanwhile the Chinese are doing stuff on the border (in the Chumar sector in Ladakh).

The Chinese were attempting to send a signal, that we may sit down and get on the swing together in Ahmedabad, but be aware that we are the senior partner here.

I think he think he overplayed his hand with China. And laid himself open.

The other thing that he has done that is good is he has really reached out very widely.

And in this he continues, what was begun first by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and then under Manmohan Singh.

India has the confidence to reach out and Modi has followed up and is very, very, forcefully, very effectively, building stronger relationships in Europe and the rest of Asia.

And the guy works — give him a lot of credit — he works like crazy. He is seemingly tireless between his international commitments and he has got a lot riding on how the Indian public sees this.

Of course, this visit, as well as the G-20 presidency, are all, not coincidentally timed (laughs), to occur within the year before the election.

So, he can tell (Indians): ‘See India is already the Vishwaguru. Even Biden wants us to be the guru. And I went to New York and we had thousands of people doing yoga. Everybody’s looking to us for wisdom’.

He’s got the salience of these issues much greater, at this stage, with the Indian public than I thought it would be.

He sensed that. These issues appeal — not so much to the working class, for lack of a better term — but to the Indian middle class which is more concerned about India’s prestige in the world and India being respected by the big powers and all that.

What moment, even if it was optics, did you like best, or found interesting about this visit?

That’s a hard one…

I liked the fact that he had to go in to be in front of a press conference.

For any reasonably observant person, the fact that he hasn’t had a single open press conference since he became prime minister, nine years, the contrast was there (to see).

On top of that, was the (actual) question asked by (the Wall Street Journal journalist) Sabrina Siddiqui, which I thought was a very, very well framed question. She asked him specifically about communal issues.

And he evaded that and he said ‘India’s the mother of all democracies’ or whatever he said.

The worst you can call it is hypocrisy, that evasion of the issue, which certainly observant people here, informed people here, know is not true.

India’s reputation in the media and the think-tank world is more at risk today than it has been in the last 40 years because of what the BJP has done, and this is not just here in the United States, it’s in Europe too.

(External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam) Jaishankar is extremely quick, effective in shooting down these things with his nasty quips. But that’s the reality.

And we deal with a lot of other countries.

Who have worse records sometimes, too?

Yes, absolutely. So, it’s complicated. All in all, I’ve been an advocate for US relations for, oh golly…

Fifty years?

Sixty years. I first went to India in 1964.

This year is actually 59 years. And I have been a huge advocate, proponent and an active proponent and I had some influence in this relationship, for almost that whole time.

But I am deeply troubled by what’s happening in India domestically. Deeply. And it just pains me as well as worries me.

I’m with Obama on this one — countries that isolate, and tend to turn into second class citizens, 15 per cent of their population, usually wind up paying a price for that, at some point down the road.

And then, of course, there’s 2026. And the whole federalism issue.

When people ask me where India is going over the next few years, I say, well, first Modi is almost certain to be re-elected, although perhaps not with a greater majority, and maybe even a slightly reduced majority in the Lok Sabha.

But he’s got a big crisis, two years down the road from his re-election in his relationship with the South.

Based on what you might know of Mr Biden, could you speculate on what happened when Mr Modi and Mr Biden were speaking privately together?
Biden was supposed to have brought up the human rights issues.
Do you think he would have been stronger in what he said to Mr Modi?

Somewhat stronger.

I mean, he’s not a mild man?

He’s also a very politically savvy man.

He’s not going to — having pulled out all the stops for the visit as a whole — he’s not likely to have lambasted Modi in private.

He might have said, ‘Mr Prime Minister, in our country, there is concern about developments in India over the last several years and we have concern in our Congress, we have concern in our in our think-tanks and human rights organisations. Our media has grown increasingly critical of you. And I hope that those issues do not in some way impede the growing partnership between us’.

Something like that. That would my guess. It sure is just a guess.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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