New York – After five years working in California, Ranjith Subramanian – who made it big as a tech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley – has returned home to launch an online education website 14,000km away in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Subramanian is not the only Indian who succeeded in the US. Indians lead more than 15 percent of the valley’s startups, more than those from Britain, Japan or China. Relations between Bangalore – India’s technology hub – and Palo Alto are smoother than the political axis between New Delhi and Washington.
“There is a huge synergy between the tech industries in India and California, which is behind much of the growth and development in India – people really look up to the US,” Subramanian told Al Jazeera. Narendra Modi aims to strengthen political ties during his maiden visit to the US as India’s prime minister. US officials speak of a stronger US-Indian partnership to check China’s growing clout which could yield a $500bn annual trade bonanza, but analysts say relations could stay flat-lined. “Modi’s visit to America is a big deal and will be very closely followed,” Subramanian said.
Modi arrived in New York on Friday and told the UN General Assembly of India’s “ancient wisdom”. He urged the UN to designate a world day for yoga, so millions more people can “get connected with the world and with nature”. Yoga is not a typical UN topic, but Modi is not a typical leader. His rags-to-riches story, and his work as chief minister in western Gujarat state, won him rock-star status and a landslide win in India’s national elections in May. His popularity encompasses some 2.8 million Indian Americans, who are relatively affluent and educated. More than 30,000 people vied for 19,000 tickets to Modi’s show at Madison Square Garden, a famed New York sports arena, on Sunday.
The $1.5m Bollywood-style event featured dancers and lasers. Concert-goers waved flags, chanted and cheered – particularly when Modi promised to simplify immigration rules for those of Indian origin. They could “join hands to serve our mother India”, he said. “Wow! He’s clearly very popular,” Anand Shah, spokesman for the Indo-American Community Federation, the event’s organiser, told Al Jazeera. “We didn’t expect to run out of seats. He represents a potential political change in India that’s long been waited for.”
Not everyone agrees. Several hundred people protested outside behind police barricades and accused Modi of failing to prevent the deaths of more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, during religious riots in Gujarat in 2002. In 2005, Modi was denied a US visa under the administration of former President George W Bush over the incident. On Thursday, the human rights group American Justice Center, filed a lawsuit against Modi in a New York federal court over the riots. The White House dismissed the case, saying Modi enjoys immunity from prosecution. Indian courts have cleared him of wrongdoing.
Behind the scenes, Modi has met investors with a message of cutting red tape, fighting corruption, and renewing economic growth. On Monday, he spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a think tank, in the hopes of bolstering his foreign policy credentials. Modi’s ongoing White House visit follows months of groundwork by officials in Washington and New Delhi. A US administration official said “deliverables” on security, clean energy, and climate change would follow meetings with US President Barack Obama.
Though they may become friends, they will not break bread in Washington – Modi is fasting for the Hindu festival of Navratri. Despite that, on Monday Obama hosted his Indian counterpart for a private dinner where both pledged to expand and deepen their countries’ strategic partnership. In a joint “vision statement” issued on Monday, the two leaders said they would work together “not just for the benefit of both our nations, but for the benefit of the world”. “We have a vision that the United States and India will have a transformative relationship as trusted partners in the 21st century. Our partnership will be a model for the rest of the world,” they said in their statement. At an Oval Office meeting on Tuesday, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will hold further talks with Modi.
The US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the two leaders must “establish that rapport” that hopefully will last until Obama leaves office in January 2017. US-India relations have a mixed record. The world’s two largest English-speaking democracies both rejected colonialism. Their combined population, 1.7 billion, is greater than China’s. But US-India trade, despite growing nearly fivefold to $96bn since 2000, is below Washington’s expectations. Modi’s election success gave him a mandate for big economic reforms that many hope will spur more foreign investment and reverse India’s declining growth rates.
“There’s a lot at stake here; it’s not your ordinary summit,” Marshall Bouton, an analyst at the New York-based Asia Society, told Al Jazeera. “The last four years were marked by considerable and growing frustration as both sides lost the plot. “America became transactional in handling the relationship while India was distracted and lost its economic mojo.” Modi has made it easier for businesses to get permits as part of his economic reforms, but critics say he does not go far enough. Would-be investors warn of Indian firms breaching drug patents, retroactive taxation, tight labour laws and US retailers being locked out of India’s markets.
The World Bank ranks countries on how business-friendly they are: India is 134th; the US is 4th. Ashley Tellis, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said India needed freer markets, less red tape and better safeguards for investors. “American companies will make a beeline for India only when the enabling environment is propitious,” Tellis told Al Jazeera. “As the global economy improves, other destinations will compete with India for US investment – and they will win, if they promise a better policy environment, greater institutional rectitude and a reasonable regulatory regime.”
Meanwhile, Modi does not bank only on Washington. He negotiated investment deals with China ($20bn) and Japan ($33.6bn) earlier this month. In July, he joined Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa – the BRICS club of big emerging economies – to unveil a $100bn development bank. Talk of boosting US-India trade has been proposed before: Last year, US Vice President Joe Biden called for a $500bn target – a fivefold increase. According to CFR’s Alyssa Ayres, a former US State Department official, this figure is wildly optimistic.
“Will $500bn happen in the next couple of years? No. But in a decade, is it realistic to think about doubling from $100 to $200bn? Potentially,” Ayers told Al Jazeera. “What’s important is that we’re back on track after a troubled period in the relationship.” US-India relations have had high points after decades of Indo-Russian courtship during the Cold War. President Bush struck an atomic technology deal with New Delhi in 2005. But the trend is inauspicious. The US still bankrolls India’s nuclear-armed rival, Pakistan.
Modi’s US visa rejection was a problem. Relations plummeted last year when a junior Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched in New York. It caused uproar in India and led to the resignation of Washington’s envoy to New Delhi, who has yet to be replaced. “The question now is whether Modi can allay Washington’s misgivings over whether India really has the potential to succeed in its own right, particularly economically, and fulfil its potential and play effectively on the international stage in ever-wider roles,” said Bouton.