The decisive mandate received in the May 2014 elections is being used by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reboot and re-craft policy, both domestic and foreign.
The invitation to the President of the United States to be the chief guest for the Republic Day was a bold and courageous decision, which is a reflection of the extent to which relations between the world’s two largest democracies have improved and also signals inspirational intent. Any suggestion that this is not a first and that Prime Minister Narasimha Rao could have invited President Bill Clinton in 1994 involves some fantasising. Clinton, at least so we are told, found it difficult to alter the date of the Sate of the Union address. This explanation overlooks the fact that in 1993 the then assistant secretary of state for South Asia Robin Raphel had questioned Jammu and Kashmir’s Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union. An invitation to the US President as chief guest on Republic Day would not have been saleable domestically. The concerned assistant secretary in the state department was busy encouraging the Hurriyat and helping sell the Taliban to Benazir Bhutto.
The second Obama visit, in contrast, has committed to making the India-US relationship a defining counter-terrorism partnership for the 21st century. Apart from condemning terrorism in the strongest possible terms with “zero tolerance”, Obama and Modi reaffirmed the need for joint and concerted efforts to disrupt entities such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D-Company and the Haqqani network. These Pakistan-based entities are mentioned, for the first time, in para 41 of the joint statement, apart from jointly calling on Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the 26/11 attacks to justice.
The logic and imperative of strengthening bilateral relations with the US is anchored in our enlightened national interest. Not only do we share a democratic value system but also strong economic and people-to-people ties. No other country can help us achieve the domestic modernisation we seek. Kick-starting the economy to achieve rates of growth close to 7-8% will require revival of the manufacturing sector, infusion of both capital and technology.
With the European economies providing cause for concern and China beginning to experience a slowing of economic activity, the US economy is the main engine of global economic growth. When the world’s largest economy with a GDP of $19 trillion begins to grow at 3.5% or so, it is good news for the rest of the world. If India can get its act together, something which appears possible now, global and American business, sensing an opportunity, will engage us. Hopefully, we can put the last five years of policy paralysis behind us. The second visit is Obama’s savvy bet on India’s rise. The converse is equally true. India needs to partner the US, if it wants to succeed. India has more poor people than the population of all the least developed countries of the world put together. A little annotation would help. We have 27 million students registered in India’s universities. Nine million come into the job market every year, apart from another four to six million entering straight from school or otherwise. We need to create 10 million jobs annually, if we are to prevent India from becoming a ticking time bomb. This is not going to be easy. The total employment generation in the 10 years, prior to 2014 was 10 million, one-tenth the number required. Modi understands this. For this reason alone, he has embarked on a vigorous reorientation of both domestic and foreign policy.
In Obama’s views, this could be the defining relationship of the 21st century. The world’s two largest democracies can grow and prosper together, he emphasised. Should these attempts to intensify and upgrade relations cause alarm bells to ring elsewhere? Not really. China-US bilateral trade is $500 billion, five times the value of India’s trade with the US. The only third country message that resonates from the second Obama visit to India is the intensified counter-terrorism cooperation. Whether the country to which this message is directed will take note and whether there will be a change in the ground situation remains to be seen.
India clearly is undertaking a multi-aligned approach. Both India and the US want to engage a new and rising China in the interest of global economic and political well-being. The US President flew 12,000 miles on a standalone one-country visit. Symbolism without substance is without real value. A relationship that is transactional without solid political governmental support can become accident prone, as this relationship so often does. The second Obama visit could be a game changer, if the personal commitment of the President and the Prime Minister percolates down to the multiple stakeholders.
The second Obama visit will be remembered not only for many things, a US President as chief guest for Republic Day, the personal chemistry between Obama and Modi, clearing the remaining hurdles for the operationalisation of the nuclear deal, extension of the Defence Cooperation Agreement and so on. More than all that, it will be cross-referenced a few years down the road, as the point of time when India finally shed its inhibition and signalled its desire to seek a qualitatively higher level of engagement with the world’s most powerful country, even as it seeks multi-aligned partnerships with others.
The Prime Minister described the India-US nuclear agreement as the centre-piece of the transformed relationship between the two countries. His assurance that the PMO will monitor the big projects provides the reassurance necessary.
Hardeep S Puri is India’s former permanent representative to the United Nations. The views expressed by the author are personal