A review of the Prime Minister’s schedule and agenda reveals no big-ticket items, but a raft of meetings, starting with one soon after his arrival on Friday with New York City Mayor Bill Blasio, followed by one with his predecessor Michael Bloomberg. He will then meet Nobel Laureate Harold Eliot Varmus, who is the current Director of the National Cancer Institute, and also a co-Chair of the President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He will also drop by at the iconic Central Park to attend and address the annual Global Citizens Initiative, which aims at building a sustainable world community for all.
(Modi will also meet the Hillary and Bill Clinton, an engagement that will not only recognize their contributions to US-India ties through their political and personal life (though the Clinton Foundation) but also cover for the prospect of Hillary ascending to the White House in 2016.)
Such unusual engagements suggest a prime ministerial mindset aimed at learning how to arrest India’s degradation and turn it around: Blasio is a votary of the smart city concept who is evolving NYC into an energy efficient and sustainable metropolis. The billionaire Bloomberg oversaw major redevelopment and rezoning in NYC, his three-term mayorship making the city vastly more hospitable. Varmus is a transportation alternatives veteran who is also a proponent of open source and open access science. Each is a champion of making NYC — and America — a better place.
Meaningful photo-ops meant to convey Modi’s personal respect for US struggles and ideals is scattered through his program — from visiting the 9/11 memorial in NYC to walking through the monuments in Washington DC, from the Lincoln Memorial to the Martin Luther King Memorial, with floral tribute to the Gandhi statue in front of the Indian Embassy. Each is a hero to President Obama, and it remains to be seen if the US President will join Modi in these choreographed peregrinations.
The White House though is nonplussed about what to feed the Indian Prime Minister in the private dinner that President Obama is scheduled to host for him on Monday evening soon after he arrives in Washington DC. Not even the greens and herbs, forget the vegetables, from Michelle Obama’s White House garden will make it to the vegetarian prime minister’s dinner plate because he adheres strictly to a liquid diet during the period of Navratri. Sipping lemon juice is about as far as he will go, and White House creativity will be tested on how to turn that into a dinner menu.
Amid all these optics, the big question is whether the visit itself can be anything more than a lemon. Nothing in the prime ministers program suggests any big-ticket item or announcement, although officials are working through a raft of bilateral deliverables, from energy deals to education agreements, to dress them up as major achievements. There will be plenty of glad-handling and speechifying, at business meetings in NYC and DC and at think-tanks and state department receptions.
At its core, the visit seems aimed at signaling continuity and incremental enhancement of India’s ties with US., notwithstanding the personal issues between Washington and Modi, which is now a thing of the past.