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Obama spoke as a friend, Modi must heed his sentiments

columns Updated: Feb 01, 2015 02:55 IST
Barack Obama

Does the Obama visit and the personal rapport between the two heads of government suggest India's foreign policy is hereafter heading in a new direction? And does this mean we will see Indian and American policies finding increasing areas of convergence? I would say the answer to both questions is yes.

First, Modi and Obama have issued a joint strategic vision statement for the Asia Pacific. That itself is new and, even, surprising. Several of our former foreign secretaries don't believe we share a strategic vision. Furthermore, it reveals a shared concern about and an agreed response to China. Up till now that hasn't been the case. This is another significant departure.

Actually, the Indo-US convergence goes further. The New York Times reveals "Obama and his aides discovered to their surprise that Mr Modi's assessment of China's rise and its impact on the greater strategic situation in East Asia was closely aligned with their own." I doubt if you could have said that of Mr Vajpayee or Brajesh Mishra.

Second, Obama not only thanked India for its Afghan policy but also its stand on Iran's nuclear programme. That took many by surprise. I, at least, was not aware we thought along similar lines.

But that's not all. The two other leaders with whom Mr Modi has established a personal bond are Shinzo Abe of Japan and Tony Abbott of Australia and both are close allies of America. Do we have the makings of a special relationship between these four countries? Will we witness this when this year's Malabar maritime exercises commence? Very possibly.

Third, last Sunday Mr Modi stressed the importance of personal chemistry between leaders in building ties between their countries. Clearly Modi and Obama are not just friends but have a special relationship. Will that be the engine that propels Indo-US relations over the next two years?

I wouldn't be surprised, is the simple answer. And I doubt if the Pakistani thorn will be an irritant for long. America's diminishing role in Afghanistan and, perhaps, changes in Pakistan's own response to terror could substantially reduce that concern.

Now, it's in this wider context that President Obama's town hall warning about religious freedom and the need to guard against sectarianism should be viewed. He was speaking as a friend but he was chiding nonetheless. And very publicly!

When he said: "Every person has a right to practice their faith as they choose... nowhere is that more important than in India", he had the ghar wapsi and love jihad campaigns in mind. When he added "India will succeed so long as it's not splintered along lines of religious faith", he was clearly telling Mr Modi that his silence over these matters endangers India's future.

The President unhesitatingly embraced his "sisters and brothers of India" with the words "when we look at each other we see a reflection of ourselves" and when he added "America can be India's best partner", but that affirmation of commitment and affection only makes the warning that followed stronger and more urgent to heed. Ignore it at your peril.

I don't know how Mr Modi will respond. I hope it won't irritate him, even if he doesn't publicly say so. Actually, my fingers are crossed in the hope it gives him the strength to speak out and stand up to those who threaten his development dreams with their own narrow and dark visions. Remember, that includes the RSS and some members of his own government.

(The views expressed by the author are personal)