India and the United States, the leadership of both countries perpetually reminds us, share common political values. The question, which has been the diplomatic struggle ever since India ended its self-imposed economic and political isolation in 1991, is whether the two countries can find common interests as well. President Barack Obama is now the third US leader to set off on this quest in recent times. Because the new India-US relationship is relatively young, there is an element of rediscovery every time a new government is elected to power in each country. This is particularly the case when it comes to the US, simply because its interests are global while India’s remain largely regional.
Obama’s state visit to this country is about a rediscovery of India by a White House resident. George W. Bush was unusual in having a vision even before he came to the Oval Office. Obama is almost certainly closer to what India should expect from the White House: a slower and more measured learning curve about India’s importance and capacities on the international stage. And, as important, a strategic recognition of how much the emergence of India is in the interests of the US and the world system it has fashioned. There has been an assumption that Obama has been a reluctant geopolitician, constrained by his enormous domestic problems and a political career in which international relations have rarely encroached. There can be little doubt this has coloured the foreign policy approach of the first two years of this present US administration.
This is what India has learnt with the conclusion of the US president’s visit: Obama is now committed to a strategic relationship with the world’s largest democracy. His administration’s liberal use of the term “indispensable partner” is no longer a nice turn of phrase, it has developed a tangible and almost definable shape. This is more than just Obama’s endorsement in principle of India’s securing a permanent seat on an expanded United Nations Security Council, if and when it happens. As the agreements and statements issued forth during this visit, the US and India intend to work together on a host of issues that are essential to the rise of India, from mundane but essential issues like agriculture and health to the headline-grabbing areas of space and defence technology. Sceptics will point out that they have heard this before. And the response is that these are all areas in which full-fledged cooperation cannot be accomplished overnight or even over a decade. No one should be under any illusions that many of the barriers to accomplishment in these areas are not ones created by India’s sclerotic bureaucracy or parochial political leadership. But with an ever-expanding commitment from three successive US presidents, Indians can now be confident that their relations with the world’s oldest democracy are moored in more than personalities and tied increasingly to a common destiny.