It was 2008 and New Delhi was carefully watching a freshman Senator from Illinois as his insurgent attempt to capture the American presidency captivated the world. That, of course, was Barack Obama.
That year though, New Delhi was wary. Candidate Obama, while referencing Afghanistan, told cable channel MSNBC that “we should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”
Months earlier, his campaign had attacked his rival in the primaries in a memo titled: “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)’s Personal, Financial and Political Ties of India”. Among the items criticised was her co-founding the Senate India Caucus.
The initial months of Obama’s ascension were not particularly reassuring either. Obama’s transition team attempted to create a South Asian czar in the late Richard Holbrooke.
“The Indians would have none of it. There were concerns over where things were going,” recalled Walter Andersen, director of the Johns Hopkins University’s South Asia Studies Program.
That opposition from India resulted in an AfPak remit for Holbrooke but also in a policy that marginalised India. Obama went to Beijing and spoke of China playing a role in South Asia. Worries were multiplying. Andersen attributed that to Obama’s “comparative lack of experience” at the time.
But, he said, Obama was also a “quick study”. In late 2009, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was the guest of honour at the first State Dinner hosted in the Obama White House. A year later, Obama addressed a joint sitting of Parliament and announced America’s support for India seeking a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
By the next year, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, was speaking in Chennai about India taking on a large regional responsibility, even as she had already institutionalised a Strategic Dialogue process between the two countries.
At the time California Democrat Ami Bera was elected to the US House of Representatives, “the relationship wasn’t at the best point”. Despite once describing Manmohan Singh as Mr Guru, policy paralysis in India coupled with a dispute over the arrest of New York-based diplomat Devyani Khobragade had nearly nulled progress on the bilateral front.
“Tribal instincts came to the fore,” Andersen said. Bera, co-chair of the Congressional India Caucus, said, “That should have been handled better. Part of my obligation is educating my own colleagues on how actions that take place in US are perceived in India.”
As the 2014 elections in India drew closer, there were concerns in Washington: How would then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi work with the US, after a controversial visa bar and after the US embassy in Delhi ignored Gandhinagar. But, Andersen said, “Modi showed real sophistication.”
A personal slight didn’t impact ties as he took over as prime minister. Obama reciprocated with equal grace. “There’s genuine respect,” said Bera of the rapport between the two leaders.
Andersen believes Obama possibly does not enjoy a relationship of such mutual admiration with another leader other than German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As with Clinton in Obama’s first term, a senior member of his Cabinet in the second term helped forge stronger links. Unlike his predecessor Chuck Hagel, US defence secretary Ashton Carter’s proactive policies with regard to India enhanced ties.
“The secretary of defence certainly understands India and understands the region and that’s been helpful in moving the relationship forward. India is also taking an increased role in security in the region and I think that’s great,” Bera said.
Two factors played into the upswing, according to Andersen: “The Indian economy has gone quite well and the rise of China and their increasing assertiveness. The US was clearly looking for partners and India was the obvious case.”
While periodic niggles remain, Obama’s presence as chief guest at the 2015 Republic Day underscored a new dynamic between the two nations. As Bera said, “I think it certainly is the high point of President Obama’s foreign policy. I think both the president, the vice-president have commented the US-India relationship could be one of the defining relationships of the 21st century.”
And the bilateral space has deepened and broadened to the extent that Andersen expects “more of the same” from the incoming administration of Donald Trump.
If Obama’s global footprint has been shaky and marked with missteps, even his critics can’t claim it hasn’t left a positive mark on the India-US connect.