Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to US President Barack Obama to be the Chief Guest on Republic Day was not just a complete surprise but in many ways a foreign policy game changer. This move has the potential to transform India-US relations. It also sends out a powerful message to the South Asian region and beyond with wider strategic implications for India’s foreign policy. Indeed, there are even a few who compare this development to the mutual defence treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971. That may seem exaggerated today but it could turn out to be true.
First, this step establishes Mr Modi as a master of foreign policy. Starting with the way he converted his swearing-in into a Saarc summit, his deft handling of Nepal and Bhutan and his successful visits to Japan, the US and Australia, he has been surefooted, confident and inspired. No one expected this of him. It has to be the biggest surprise of his prime ministership.
The Obama invitation suggests the two men have forged a personal bond beyond a mere political relationship. Who would have thought that possible? In September, when the Indian American scholar Ashley Tellis advised Modi to build “a strong connection with Obama, of the kind (he) enjoys with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe”, he couldn’t have thought this would happen so fast. That it has laid the foundation for a significant boost in the strategic relationship between the two countries.
Mr Modi has now cast aside India’s traditional hesitation and reserve about America. Clearly, for him, the US and not Russia is India’s most important international relationship.
Of course, Mr Modi still needs to clear the hurdles created by India’s Nuclear Liability Law but I doubt he’ll duck that challenge. Equally, it’s only when he bites the bullet of second-generation reforms that American investment will materialise. But he knows that and he has time till the next budget.
Meanwhile, the message to Pakistan and the South Asian region is clear from the simple fact Obama is visiting India for the second time whilst, despite many promises, he has yet to go to Pakistan.
The second interesting thing is that the other two heads of government Mr Modi has forged a personal relationship with are Shinzo Abe and Tony Abbott. Both have close links with America. Could a four-way relationship be emerging? Maybe not immediately but you can no longer rule it out.
Both Presidents Xi and Putin will be studying the Obama visit and its implications carefully. Xi might see this as an attempt to support or collaborate with Obama’s pivot or rebalance in Asia. Putin will note that as bonds with Moscow grow looser ties with Washington are increasing.
Of course, sceptics will downgrade the Obama visit on the grounds that after the recent Congressional elections he’s a lame duck and his ratings are very poor. No doubt that will affect the US President’s domestic agenda but constitutionally he has enormous powers in foreign and defence affairs and two more years in office to exercise them. Till he hands over to his successor, Obama will remain the most powerful man in the world. And don’t forget, Republicans, who now control both houses of Congress, are equally keen on India.
I won’t deny that how India-US relations hereafter develop is still a challenge for Mr Modi but it would be churlish to deny he has laid a solid foundation to build upon. Today, at least, he deserves a loud hurrah.
(The views expressed by the author are personal.)