India and the United States have been dubbed "natural partners" by Narendra Modi and Barack Obama. The repeated use of the expression during their joint press conference signalled a renewed but more pragmatic closeness.
Atal Behari Vajpayee had declared the two sides to be "natural allies". But the generous George W Bush was replaced with a more transactional Obama. This was followed by an ineffective second Manmohan Singh government. This experience has made both governments recognize the inherent limitations in Indo-US relations. Unlike the policy lock-step that characterises allies, partners work together--but do their own thing as well.
Throughout the press conference India and the US agree on the big picture on almost everything: Afghanistan to climate change, terrorism to UN Security Council reform. But both sides can now get horribly bogged down on the fine print of working together on these issues. The never-ending nuclear deal is a perfect example.
Obama spoke of a "breakthrough" in operationalising the nuclear deal . Sources indicate that the US president ordered his negotiators to give up their hard stance on the administrative arrangements regarding the monitoring of fissile material imported by India. New Delhi has also offered a government-backed pool insurance to handle the suppliers' liability required under Indian law. But this still has to be accepted by the individual nuclear component manufacturers. Neither Obama nor Modi have any control of their lawyers.
That it has taken six years to get to this partial solution is a reminder of how difficult it is to get complex things agreed upon between two countries with robust democratic sructures and independent judiciaries.
Obama and Modi spoke briefly of the two working together to "help Afghanistan through its present transition," glossing over the deep differences between the two countries on reconciling the Kabul government with the Taliban. China, the third party in all Indo-US strategic conversations, was not mentioned at all.
This does not mean that India and the US are destined to be cantankerous friends. Modi and Obama last year had set up contact groups and working parties on a whole set of prickly issues ranging from intellectual property to nuclear problems.
The announcement that hotlines will be set up between the two leaders and their national security advisors is a useful institutional means to help avoid misunderstandings and bridging gaps before they become too wide.
Modi seemed more effusive of the two as to what he saw in the future, saying "our two nations are ready to step forward together and accept this global partnership of our two countries and shape the future of this century. This is a natural global partnership." Perhaps because he has just because his term in office while Obama is in the twilight of his.