What Does Modi Want from Biden? And Vice Versa

It is evident that the G20 Summit in New Delhi is an opportunity for Narendra Modi to shine on the global stage, as it would be for the leader of any country that assumes the annual presidency of this group of the world’s 20 largest economies, and just as it was for Indonesian President Joko Widodo at last year’s November summit in Bali. But Modi is the prime minister of India, which this year became the world’s most populous country, and, given the absence of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, will really only need to share the spotlight with Joe Biden, something which could bring the two countries closer to the strategic alliance they seem destined to take on, as much as they each try to disguise any enthusiasm for the idea.

For decades, while India assumed the role of the world’s largest democracy, its sympathies tended to lie more with the Soviet Union, even though this closeness never became a formal alliance. But the fall of the Communist bloc cooled relations between New Delhi and Moscow, while America’s response to the 9/11 attacks and global jihadism drew India closer. And now, with Modi’s BJP in power, a Hindu nationalist party that is also pro-business, the Indian-American relationship has everything in place to grow stronger, particularly if we consider the growing influence of the Indian community in the United States, from the CEOs at corporations such as Microsoft, Adobe and IBM, to political figures such as Vice President Kamala Harris.

The American vice president was specially acknowledged when Modi visited the United States and addressed a joint session of Congress, an event received with repeated standing ovations. Nothing perhaps summarizes how important India is to the United States today better than Modi’s reminder that when he first visited Washington, India was the world’s 10th largest economy, that it is now the fifth, and, he emphasized, it would soon be the third.

Whether as a matter of tradition or because it still relies on arms and oil supplies from Russia, India has been cautious in its attitude about the invasion of Ukraine, abstaining from condemning Moscow in United Nations votes. One also has to consider the historical role of challenging the West, a stance that has its roots in the anti-colonial struggle and remains powerful among Indian policymakers. Nonetheless, the convergence of interests with the Americans continues to grow; in matters of commerce, the United States is already India’s largest trading partner, with an annual trade valued at $130 billion and much room for growth, while in defense, the two countries, together with Japan and Australia, make up the QUAD alliance and participate in joint military exercises in the Himalayas, two situations which suggest an undisguised determination to counter China’s rise.

India’s reluctance to enhance this relationship further could well reflect a hesitancy to counter the global South, even though it is unhappy with the increasing influence of China and Russia in this region, while America has concerns about Modi’s governance. Modi’s recent trip to the United States was an official state visit, an honor only accorded three times to India leaders, and was his sixth visit since he was first elected in 2014. Previously, however, Modi saw his visa request denied due to responses, in his capacity as the Gujarat chief minister, to clashes between Hindus and Muslims.

Before the final summit declarations, it will be important to note what the American President Biden and the host Modi discuss, as well as their body language when they appear together. Without the presence of the Russian and Chinese leaders, the G20 Summit could be revealing in that regard, even if the practical results take a while to become apparent.

With a very large youth population, in contrast to the aging populations in China and the West, India has potential that the United States wants on its side. This is undeniable. And India, given its chronically tense relationship with China, including on their borders, is tempted to undertake a radical change in its neutral stance in the disputes between the superpowers. This, too, is undeniable.

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