Obama visit: More about leaders, less about countries

  • Shyam Saran
  • Updated: Jan 27, 2015 00:41 IST

United States President Barack Obama’s visit to India to join in the country’s celebration of its Republic Day has been rich in political symbolism and a carefully orchestrated projection of what Prime Minister Narendra Modi described as the “personal chemistry” between the two leaders. This projection was overt and deliberate.

Modi, at the media briefing, went further in ascribing to this chemistry a decisive role in fostering relations between countries and peoples. This is probably the first time any Indian leader has been so explicit in projecting the role of personal leadership in advancing the country’s interests and this confirms his intention to lead the country’s foreign policy. The invitation to Obama to be the chief guest at Republic Day was Modi’s own initiative, with no prompting from his advisers or bureaucrats.

Obama, on the other hand, said yes after consulting his aides but clearly saw an opportunity, a highly visible one, to add lustre to a fading presidency. Though in jest, Obama referred to two of Modi’s distinctive attributes, one, his Bollywood star-like popularity, abundantly apparent at the Madison Square event in September; and two, how Modi’s sartorial elegance had eclipsed Michelle Obama’s image as a fashionista.

During the visit, each has been able to leverage the other’s star quality, though for Modi the payoff has been the more substantial. This visit has been more about leaders than the countries they lead.

The joint statement issued after the official talks between the two sides is unusually long and detailed. It lists the progress achieved in bilateral collaboration in an extraordinarily wide range of sectors, whether economy and trade, science and technology, education and health or clean energy and climate change.

It details their expanding engagement in counter-terrorism and cyber security, defence cooperation and security exchanges and regional and global issues. Several of these areas of potential collaboration had been identified in the joint statement issued in July 2005 after the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington.

They were obscured by the landmark decision to engage in bilateral civil nuclear cooperation after a hiatus of 40 years. It is remarkable how wide in scope and substance the relations have become in the last decade. It is precisely on the basis of this significant and across the board progress that the stage has been set for realising, substantially if not wholly, the promise of what Obama had described as “the defining partnership of the 21st century” when he last visited India in 2010.

Why is it that despite this impressive record of cooperation the past few years have been seen as a trough in India-US relations? Some analysts, Indian and American, have argued that India and the US have more divergent than convergent interests and recognising this, they should pitch their ambitions for their relations at much more modest levels. In other words, drop the hype and get real. The reality is that, despite differences, some quite serious, the two countries have travelled a long distance in adding substance to their partnership.

India and the US continue to share an interest in together shaping the emerging security architecture in Asia-Pacific as China continues to accumulate economic and military capabilities.

The US has emerged as a major and growing source of defence hardware for India. Much of India’s air transport assets and its air surveillance capabilities are of American origin. Bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation is unprecedented. In 2005, Pakistan was off the table in our counter-terrorism conversations. That is no longer the case. Thus it is in the two most sensitive areas, which demand high degree of mutual trust, defence and intelligence, that the two countries have transformed their relationship.

These significant advances in relations had again been obscured, this time negatively, by the nuclear deal as in 2005. Thanks to the lingering and sometimes bitter controversy over India’s nuclear liability Bill, the expectation of large-scale business for US firms in the nuclear power field were belied. The diminishing prospects for the Indian economy over the past few years compounded the negative perceptions about India in the US.

Modi’s election as head of a party with an absolute majority in Parliament and his patently genuine commitment to economic reforms and creating a business-friendly environment have reversed these perceptions and infused new vigour into the relationship.

Obama’s visit has cleared the decks for a major advance in the relationship through four key outcomes:

One, the controversy over the nuclear liability Bill is now behind us with the understanding reached over the creation of an insurance pool to cover the risks to both operators and suppliers. The administrative arrangements for reprocessing have been finalised. The way is now clear for business negotiations to commence for actual contracts.

Two, the 10-year Defence Cooperation Framework, concluded in 2005, is being renewed for another 10 years with a wider scope. Under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, concluded in 2012, it has now been agreed to undertake four projects for joint development and production including jet propulsion and aircraft carrier design. The latter is of particular significance in strengthening bilateral maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions.

However, we do not find mention of the Communications Inter-Operability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation(BECA), without which it may be difficult to enable high tech defence exchanges and technology transfer. The previous government was reluctant to conclude these agreements.

Three, under counter-terrorism cooperation there is a commitment to go beyond intelligence sharing to working together, presumably through joint operations ‘to disrupt entities such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D-Company and the Haqqani network’; and,

Four, under climate change and clean energy, the focus has shifted from pressuring India to limit its greenhouse gas emissions to working together in an ambitious programme of promoting renewable energy, in particular solar energy.

It would be fair to conclude that symbolism and substance have come together to mark this visit as a milestone event.

Shyam Saran is former foreign secretary.
He is chairman, RIS, and senior fellow, CPR
The views expressed by the author are personal

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