It looks like India figures prominently in US President Barack Obama’s to-do list before his tenure at the White House ends in 2016. His previous exertions on India policy tended to fade as compared to others like George W Bush, whose rare foreign policy success was in pushing the nuclear deal with India.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton too was acclaimed for her speech in Chennai in 2011, where she exhorted India to actively partner the US as it rebalanced in Asia — and yet, oddly, in its representation her speech did not somehow count as Mr Obama’s gesture towards India, even though both countries have significantly intensified consultations on a range of subjects during his presidency. He has, however, during this visit conclusively allayed any doubts about his own predilections and India’s place in the US’ worldview.
Mr Obama has achieved three things during this visit. In a country that watches inflections in rhetoric closely, he reaffirmed India’s importance to Washington. Just as China pronounced that Pakistan was its “irreplaceable all weather friend” New Delhi would have welcomed an American president say that India is not just a natural partner, “it could be its best partner”.
The strategic rationale of the relationship is underlined in the ‘joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region’ which will be read as a nearly explicit alliance in Beijing as it envisages support to regional integration, consultations with third countries, a future membership for India in APEC while focusing on freedom of navigation of the seas.
The visit had a significant business dimension too with an ‘understanding’ on nuclear liability, investments in renewable energy, and several capacity-building initiatives.
Mr Obama also strongly and rightly urged India to embrace liberal values alongside national affluence. Breaking his silence on the violence against and intimidation of religious minorities he warned that “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith” — and urged that the country needs to break down stereotypes and prejudices.
In a rare reference to his and Michelle Obama’s personal faith, he pointed to Article 25 in our Constitution which says every “person has the right to practise their religion how they choose...free of persecution”. He also spoke forcefully about the status of women and social inequality.
Mr Obama was in effect telling his hosts that India should be known for the quality of its democracy as much as it is known for its economic prospects. His remarks also underline that issues of religious freedom in India will continue to have international purchase, even if domestic compliance can somehow be secured.