RPI Author Deepa Ollapally: “Modi’s Worldview Is Not Easy to Read”

RPI Author Deepa Ollapally: “Modi’s Worldview Is Not Easy to Read”

Ollapally Photo 2014Last month, President Barack Obama traveled to India—becoming the first president to have visited the country twice while in office—and held a summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to discuss a number of issues, from much awaited progress on India’s nuclear liability law, to the strengthening of defense ties involving technology trade, to U.S. $4-billion investment in Indian businesses, to counterterrorism and climate change cooperation, along with an expansive strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Does this summit mark a breakthrough in the Indo-US relations, moving past incremental progress to transformational progress? If so, does the credit go to Modi’s leadership role in making sure that India’s entrenched bureaucracy fall in place? Or, is much of the success still hype without tangible outcomes? In an interview with India Abroad, Deepa Ollapally, Research Professor of International Affairs and the Associate Director of the Sigur Center for Asian Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, offered her views on the recent Indo-US summit:

I would characterize President Obama’s trip to India as more than transactional but much less than transformational. The optics were certainly grandiose, from the unprecedented scene of Obama sitting still in one place for over two hours of pomp and pageantry, to Prime Minister Modi pouring tea for Obama under a shamiana on the lawns of Hyderabad House. Of course the show itself holds some extra importance because I think it does demonstrate in no uncertain terms Modi’s own commitment to strong Indo-US ties going forward. Modi’s worldview is not easy to read and this gives us another marker of his thinking.

On the other hand, substantive outcomes did not match the show, but I don’t think anyone but the hopelessly optimistic thought the two leaders would make major breakthroughs.

Some progress was pronounced on the nuclear deal — but the devil is in the details which is open to differing interpretations. It looks like the insurance pool idea and India’s indication that it will assure compliance with international liability laws through a “memorandum of law” could lead to higher costs for nuclear projects and nuclear power.

Given the plummeting oil prices, you have to ask if nuclear energy is going to be economical after all. On energy issues which are now getting more primacy in Indian priorities, the two countries are likely to clash over capping greenhouse emissions at the next climate change conference in Paris later this year.

It will be nearly impossible for India to agree to a cap when it has such high growth ambitions, along with the fact that its CO2 emissions of the global share are far less at 5 percent than China’s at 23 percent and US at 15 percent.

India could find itself uncomfortably isolated, especially since Obama recently reached a historic deal with Xi Jinping to cap Chinese emissions for the first time.

It’s going to be defense deals and more convergence on security issues in the Indo-Pacific, that is, China’s rise, that will keep deepening relations between India and the US. But there is no question that Modi will delicately balance this trend against the clear need for cheap Chinese industrial inputs and investments, and a stable regional environment, for his all-important growth agenda.