This week marked the first meeting between President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and represents the best chance so far of turning around our troubled and underperforming bilateral trade and investment relationship. With the world’s third largest economy and second largest population, India should be a leading U.S. trading partner. Yet the United States exported less to India last year than to tiny Singapore.

The reasons for this poor performance owe much to the failed policies of previous Indian governments. Rather than continue steady economic reforms launched in the 1990s, India shifted into reverse over the last two years – raising already high tariffs on a range of industrial products, forcing the local production of telecommunications and solar energy equipment and further weakening protection and enforcement of intellectual property rights.


Business leaders in the United States and around the world welcomed Modi’s landslide election victory in May as a chance to change all that. He quickly declared his country “open for business” and promised to “give the world a favorable opportunity” to trade with and invest in India. He outlined a bold series of potential economic reforms and has taken steps to revive long-stalled bilateral commercial dialogues. Earlier this month, his Commerce Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced that India will develop a new intellectual property strategy. 

Four months into his tenure, the time is ripe for Modi and his team to translate promising early statements and actions into concrete progress and real results. So far, India’s new leadership has done little to improve an innovation environment that ranks 76th in the world, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, or to reduce widespread trade and investment barriers that keep India last among the 25 biggest economies in exports per capita. 

However, in the interim, India’s new leadership has actually taken some troubling steps by blocking implementation of a global trade facilitation agreement that could have contributed an estimated $1 trillion to the global economy and by raising tariffs and imposing burdensome new local testing requirements on information and communication technology products. 

These steps send worrying new signals about India’s leadership in the international trading system and the contribution it will make to reviving global growth. They also undermine Modi’s ability to achieve his own domestic economic goals. India and other developing countries stood to gain the most from a trade facilitation deal. As the Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy recently pointed out, “India is failing in sectors it chooses to protect, and is only competitive in sectors where it chose to liberalize.”

So will Modi’s India be “open for business” or business as usual? That’s the question on the minds of corporate decision-makers in the United States this week as the Prime Minister wraps up his visits to New York and Washington. And it’s how President Obama and his team should evaluate the commitment of their new counterparts to a balanced and mutually beneficial commercial partnership.

The president’s meeting with Prime Minister Modi is a critical opportunity to press for concrete action and real results that can drive economic growth and innovation in both our countries.  If Prime Minister Modi is serious about an economic reform agenda that would give India and the United States a chance to reinvigorate bilateral trade and investment ties, the many businesses we represent stand ready to work with his government in that endeavor.

Dempsey is the National Association of Manufacturers' vice president of international economic affairs and co-chair of the Alliance for Fair Trade with India (AFTI).