Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s US visit could not have got off to a better start. On Sunday, at a gathering of about 50,000 Indian Americans at the NRG stadium in Houston, US President Donald Trump shared the stage with Modi—a rare such appearance for any American head of state—in what made for a grand display of friendship between the two leaders. They walked on to the stage hand-in-hand as the crowd cheered amid loud drum beats that electrified the atmosphere. It was more like a rock show than a political or diplomatic event. During their speeches, the two leaders showered praise on each other, hailed the two countries’ strengthening ties, and finally took what looked like a victory lap of the arena. For the Prime Minister, “Howdy, Modi!", as it was billed, marked a closer embrace of the Indian diaspora in the US. For Trump, it served as an occasion to attract votes for his re-election bid to the White House; with his “Abki baar, Trump Sarkar" slogan, Modi even seemed to endorse Trump’s candidacy. The optics of Houston apart, what matters is the state of India’s relationship with the US. On this, there is reason to be optimistic.
While Modi and Trump appear to share an especially warm rapport, what holds the India-US equation secure and worthy of bipartisan support is the convergence of the two countries’ strategic interests. This could well turn out to be an Asian century, just as the last was American, and the US needs India to counter the rising influence of China in Asia, and elsewhere, lest its own authority be challenged in the decades ahead. The US also sees a huge market in India for American companies that need to expand. India, on the economic front, needs American investment to fire up its economy and create new jobs. If US policy could snap its businesses away from the People’s Republic, it could also nudge them south of the Himalayas. Barring a few occasions, such as after India’s nuclear tests in 1998, ties between the world’s two largest democracies have largely been on an incline ever since the Soviet Union collapsed and India opened up its economy. The stage now looks set for a new peak.
Whether new heights are scaled would depend on the material benefits that accrue to both sides. Commerce must thus be top priority. In a major move, New Delhi has eased the tax burden on businesses in operation here. Doors have been opened wider for foreign direct investment. Tariff reductions, or at least the promise of a stable duty regime, could come next. If a series of other hurdles are removed and bureaucratic red tape cleared, India could grab some vital links of global supply chains disrupted by the US-China trade war. So far, though, the deal-making on Modi’s current US visit appears to have won more cheers there than here. India has committed itself to buying US natural gas, and Trump highlighted Indian investments in America’s steel sector. Washington still has some differences with New Delhi over matters of market access and data storage. These need to be resolved. But such friction points should not get in the way of big inward investments from the US that could help India’s economy recover. Our interests converge on the geopolitical need for India’s rapid economic emergence. The sooner the Houston high translates into tangible gains on that score, the better chance India would stand in exercising greater clout in Asia.