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Modi looks to cement US-India ties before Obama's term ends

With U.S. President Barack Obama's tenure coming to an end, India's Narenda Modi is on a mission to cement his country's relationship with the world's largest economy. But he may meet a less-friendly America than on previous visits.

Modi arrived in the U.S. on Tuesday for a two-day summit, marking his fourth official visit—a remarkable turnaround for the former Gujarat minister who was banned from entering the country for a nearly a decade before his presidential victory in May 2014.

US President Barack Obama confers with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a working dinner on March 31, 2016 in Washington, DC.
OLIVIER DOULIERY | AFP | Getty Images
US President Barack Obama confers with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a working dinner on March 31, 2016 in Washington, DC.

Since then, he's developed a close relationship with Obama, who has referred to Modi as "my partner and friend."

But Obama is set to depart the White House in early 2017 and amid uncertainty regarding his successor—given the tight race between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—this tour differs from past ones, experts said.

"This visit is critical since it will prepare the foundation of Indo-U.S. engagement when the new president takes over," explained Nazia Hussain, research analyst at Singapore's Nanyang Technnological University.

The U.S. is one of India's largest trading partners, not to mention a major source of capital and military equipment so Modi will seek to consolidate those ties regardless of who becomes President, she continued.

While a Clinton presidency is widely expected to maintain or improve relations, a Trump victory has more worrisome consequences. For one, it could upset the amount of remittances New Delhi receives from the U.S. after the Republican candidate proposed cracking down on the H1B non-immigrant visa that employs numerous Indians in the U.S.

On the agenda

Modi may increase engagement with Republican and Democratic legislators, as well the private sector, which will help determine the pace of progress in a post-Obama U.S.-India relationship, Tanvi Madan, director of The India Project and a fellow in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, said in a note last week.

"Importantly, in an election year, Modi will likely note the bipartisan nature of the [U.S.-India] relationship - there's no indication yet that he will or wants to meet any of the presidential candidates on this visit," Madan said.

Of particular note will be the 65-year-old's address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, which will see him become the fifth Indian prime minister to have had that honor. Ahead of that are meetings with business leaders and an address to the U.S.-India Business Council on Tuesday.

"Expect to see Modi highlight and defend his government's two-year record on the economy and make a pitch for U.S. businesses to increase their involvement in India—particularly some of Modi's flagship initiatives such as 'Make in India' and 'Digital India'," Madan noted.

Given the unpredictability of the American election, Modi may also try to ink as many deals as possible before the end of Obama's term.

"Several good bills and amendments offered by India-friendly senators and congressmen are currently in the legislative process that recognize India as a special defense partner and enshrine in law what the Obama administration has been doing through the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative. The hope is to pass at least one bill or amendment in both houses in time for Modi's visit or shortly after," Mumbai-based think tank Gateway House said in a recent report.

Specifically, the visit could see India enter the Missile Technology Control Regime, a partnership among 34 countries aimed at missile non-proliferation, Hussain said.

Challenges ahead

But potential deals may be hampered by growing anti-India sentiment within Congress.

In May, a hearing on U.S.-India relations held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) produced numerous complaints about Indian policies that discouraged U.S. investment.

"We're not as brutally honest about our relationship with India as we should be, and it benefits neither them nor us," remarked Bob Corker, U.S. senator and SFRC chairman, pointing to "unparalleled bureaucratic red tape", "serious concerns" about intellectual property and high tariffs as examples.

New Delhi also came under criticism for its human rights record.

"How does a country like this have 12 to 14 million slaves?" Corker said in May. "Do they have just zero prosecution abilities, zero law enforcement; I mean how could this happen? On that scale, it's pretty incredible."

A report released this month showed the heavyweight Asian economy had 18 million people--the world's highest--living in slavery, i.e. situations where a person's freedom is restricted for exploitation.

Issues like these could force Modi to test his skills and mark a sharp contrast from the hype that dominated his first U.S. visit in September 2014, Gateway House remarked. "Now, the pendulum has swung a little from that happy place."

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