WASHINGTON : The United States said Wednesday that top cabinet members will visit India in coming weeks to break the ice with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was once shunned by Washington.
Secretary of State John Kerry will visit on July 31 and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will travel to India in early August, culminating in Modi’s previously announced visit to Washington in September, officials told a Senate committee.
“We are confident we can work in a strong and collaborative partnership with the Modi government to grow our economic and strategic relations with India,” said Nisha Biswal, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia. Modi was once persona non grata in the United States due to allegations that he turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim riots that swept Gujarat in 2002 when he was leader of the western state. He has denied wrongdoing.
The United States has rushed to make up for lost time since it became clear that Modi would cruise to victory in elections held in April and May. His Hindu nationalist swept to India’s biggest electoral mandate in three decades.
Kerry will take part in annual US-India strategic talks, while Pentagon official Amy Searight said that Hagel would seek greater military trade and cooperation with the Modi government.
Modi has largely shown himself to be a pragmatist on foreign policy. He has already met with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chinese President Xi Jinping, despite his suspicions about the neighboring countries voiced before his election.
Modi did not reveal any lingering bitterness over his treatment by the United States when accepting President Barack Obama’s invitation to the White House, calling in a statement for stronger US-India relations.
But Searight - responding to questions from Senator John McCain, who met Modi earlier this month and is a frequent critic of Obama - acknowledged that India has voiced concern about Afghanistan where the United States is preparing to withdraw troops.
The US outreach to Modi’s government has not started completely smoothly. India earlier this month summoned Washington’s top diplomat in New Delhi after leaks by former government contractor Edward Snowden showed that US intelligence spied on Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party while in opposition.
During the election season, India was infuriated after US authorities arrested an Indian diplomat in New York on charges of mistreating her servant.
Biswal assured senators that US officials have spent “many, many hours” working with India to prevent similar friction in the future.
The United States is working to make sure “that we have more clear and transparent communication to ensure we anticipate problems before they happen and that we clearly communicate and resolve them,” she said.
Former US presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush moved to build US relations with India after estrangement during the Cold War, describing the world’s largest democracy as a natural ally.
Obama has also supported warm ties with India and voiced an affinity for Modi’s predecessor, the soft-spoken economist Manmohan Singh.
But Frank Wisner, a US ambassador to New Delhi under Clinton, said that Obama’s relationship with India “took on the tone of a transactional undertaking” due in part to doubts about the Singh government’s ability to follow through on trade deals.
Wisner said that India in turn had trouble understanding its role in Obama’s worldview - especially his treatment of China’s rise.
“We are wise to assume that the prime minister and his party may be in office for the next 10 years. It is a good time to define our political and security relationship,” Wisner said.