Washington: In the capital of the country that has refused to give a visa to Narendra Modi, there is endless speculation among policy makers about what Modi's arrival on the scene means for India, its relations with Pakistan and China and, of course, the United States.
Modi's own statements have helped to thaw the American freeze somewhat. In several interviews he has insisted that his individual issues in relation to the American visa denial will not be allowed to cloud his judgment over India's US policy.
In another interview last week, he has been most explicit – India and the US are "natural allies" he declared, in a formulation first heard during the Vajpayee period.
Indeed, Modi said it was Vajpayee who laid the foundation for a new era of partnership with the US, so "we will build upon that and take it forward."
But given his personality, no matter what he says, Modi is not likely to forget the slight of the US visa denial easily. It will therefore be some time before relations with the US can get back to the level they were at the time the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed.
In addition, there will have to be a lot of work done in Washington and New Delhi to undo the era of bad feelings that have characterised Indo-US relations in the last couple of years.
None of this will remove the lingering concerns of the different segments of the US policy community. There are non-proliferation wallahs who worry that the BJP promise "to study" and "review" the nuclear doctrine could lead to India abandoning its no first use pledge.
Those promoting religious rights – who were primarily responsible for his visa denial – worry that a Modi prime ministership could have negative consequences for religious freedom in the country.
Then there are those who worry that an assertive Modi could upset the regional applecart in relation to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Modi's declaration that relations with Pakistan cannot be normal "as long as the bombs are going off" provides one perspective. Another can be seen from his refusal to court the Muslim community during the elections. In other words, his Pakistan policy could be marked with indifference, rather than active belligerence.
Indian policy towards Pakistan has veered between what can be termed "flexible engagement" and "flexible containment", and it would not be surprising if the latter theme becomes dominant in his dealings with Islamabad.
Then there are those in Washington who look at relations with India through the prism of specific regional issues-Iran, Afghanistan, Ukraine, South China Sea and so on. Given America's own reluctance to get involved in another conflict, they hope that India can play a more active role.
India is not unhappy that the US seems to be preoccupied with developments in the Middle-East and Ukraine. Because they worry that a US desperate to leave Afghanistan could further compromise India's interests in relation to Pakistan.
Likewise, there are concerns that the US is pushing the Russians into the arms of the Chinese and this could result in India losing its coveted status as Russia's favoured partner for arms transfer issues.
America itself is going in for an election this year. The mid-term election involves the entire House of Representatives and 34 out of 50 seats in the Senate and 36 out of 50 governorships of the states.
At a superficial level, Barack Obama is not very different from that of Manmohan Singh. He, too, is seen as an indecisive or passive leader. But the US is coping with the consequences of the two wars it fought in the 2000s.
The policy wonks may not like it, but the average American is quite happy to stay away from any new conflict, especially one that could involve another war.
Of great interest in the US are Modi's perspectives towards China. It is known that he has visited both China and Japan. Many feel that these are the countries towards which India could tilt towards in the coming period.
Last week in an article in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times Liu Zongyi, a fellow at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies came up with another angle. He said that that Modi's election is cause for disquiet in western countries and Modi could actually bring China and India closer together.
It is not so much over the issue of human rights or religious freedoms, Liu has argued, but that the authoritarian and tough Modi could give rise to an ultra-nationalist and assertive India which could alter the terms of engagement between India and the west.
As of now, India follows a policy of passive restraint which is essentially defensive. It leans towards the west in terms of its world view. But were Modi to take the Putin track, it could upset the regional power equations. There is, however, an element of wishful thinking in the Chinese argument that a nationalist Modi will avoid getting involved in US plans for India to counter-balance China.
It is difficult to explain to the strategic community here that Modi has not yet been elected. And even if he is, his room for manoeuvre would depend on the kind of majority or plurality he had. But most important, is that Modi's own priorities would be on the economic side because he has raised enormous expectations among the electors on that front.
Getting tough with external adversaries is not a priority area, and in any case the level of toughness he can exercise would be greatly conditioned by the economic situation of the country. Raising the GDP by several percentage points would do more for India's standing, than any act of assertion against Pakistan, China or the US.
Mail Today May 12, 2014
Mail Today May 12, 2014