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Barack Obama leaves office: Highs and lows in India-US ties during his tenure

It may be too early still to judge what US President Barack Obama, who leaves office later this week, meant for India, which could range anything between nothing, as many have argued, and quite a bit, as held by others.

world Updated: Jan 17, 2017 21:11 IST
Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
President Barack Obama helps paint a mural of Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington on Monday.(AP)

It may be too early still to judge what US President Barack Obama, who leaves office later this week, meant for India, which could range anything between nothing, as many have argued, and quite a bit, as held by others.

But, here is what a seasoned Indian diplomat who worked closely with the Obama White House had to say, “This was a liberal White House, more liberal than many in recent history, and we did fine, with some ups and some downs.”

Liberals in the US have given India a tougher time than conservatives, specially on non-proliferation. New Delhi had to work Democrats the hardest on the Civilian nuclear deal. And Obama had alarmed New Delhi with his early enthusiasm as a candidate for US mediation to resolve the India-Pakistan dispute. He didn’t pursue that line, but did cause further concern suggesting a “Group of Two”, or G-2, with China.

Here is a look as some of the highs and lows in relations between India and the US on his watch.

Manmohan Singh and wife first state guests of the Obamas

Outgoing US President Barack Obama (right) and first lady Michelle Obama pose with India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur before a state dinner on the North Portico of the White House November 24, 2009. (Reuters file)

PM Manmohan Singh and wife are the first state guests for the Obamas in 2009, with a state dinner that would make headlines for all the wrong reasons. A wannabe Washington DC couple gatecrashed the strictly-by-invitation event raising serious questions about security at the White House, specially post 9/11.

This would be the last time the Obamas would give an Indian leader a state dinner. Singh’s successor Prime Minister Narendra Modi got an informal and intimate dinner on his first visit to the White House in 2015, and a working lunch in 2016, but no state dinner.

The Obamas did give China two state dinners — one for President Hu Jintao in 2011 and the other for President Xi Jinping in 2015.

Obama visits India in 2010

Barack Obama and Michelle Obama pay visit to Humayun's Tomb in New Dehli on November 7, 2010. (AFP file)

President Obama then visited India in November 2010, becoming the first US president to visit in their first term in official in decades, and made it truly historic announcing US support for India’s claim to a permanent seat in the UN security Council. He also announced he end of export control regimes preventing the sale of sensitive technology to India, dismantling the last of the punitive measures imposed after the 1998 Pokhran II nuclear tests.

The lasting images of the trip, however, came from the Mumbai leg of his visit, when First Lady Michelle Obama pulled him on to the floor to dance bhangra with her and performers at an event. Even US presidents can be ordered around.

Obama de-hyphenates India and Pakistan

Barack Obama and Manmohan Singh raise a toast during a banquet hosted by the Indian president in New Delhi. (AFP file)

The Obama had arrived in India for the visit straight from Washington DC, and left days later for Jakarta, Indonesia. They didn’t visit Pakistan, breaking from the past practice of US presidents giving Islamabad a balancing visit, even if it was a short one — President Bill Clinton visited Pakistan for just a few hours after a lengthy visit to India in 2000, and President George W Bush was there for 24 hours after an India tour in 2008. Obama did not visit Pakistan during his 2010 visit and once again in 2015, when he was the chief guest the Republic Day parade in 2015. In fact, he never visited Pakistan as president.

The decoupling went deeper than visits, and US officials would go on to contend, it was India that couldn’t let go of the us-or-them narrative of the past.

US loses MMRCA deal, deeply disappointed

Just a few months after that Obama’s visits, India announced in April 2011 US airplane makers Lockheed Martin and Boeing had not made it to the shortlist of companies the fray for the multi-billion dollar Medium range Multi-Role Combat Aircraft fighter jets America had hoped to bag, not in small measure as a thank-you gesture for ending India’s nuclear isolation with the Civil Nuclear Deal formalised in 2008. Words like “betrayal” and “ungrateful” were flung around by angry think-tankers and officials for months till tempers cooled when realisation dawned that India had actually done everything by the book, for a change.

First commercial deal signed under civil nuclear pact

Barack Obama shakes hands with Manmohan Singh at the Oval Office of the White House in Washington September 27, 2013. (Reuters file)

First commercial deal is signed during prime minister Singh’s second, and final visit to the US to meet Obama in September 2013, five years after the deal was formalised in 2008, addressing mounting impatience in the US with India long and tortuous ratification of an agreement Americans had believed New Delhi would jump to accept and implement. This was progress, but the ball has hardly moved since till now, with negotiations being concluded only last year on the issue of compensation to be paid in the event of an accident.

As Indian economy stagnated, US turns up the heat

As the Indian growth slid to just over 4% in late 2013 and reforms stalled on the watch of Singh’s premiership beleaguered by controversies and corruption charges, the Obama administration mounted pressure on India urging it to open up more of the economy and reform its Intellectual Property Rights regime; mostly in a response to intense lobbying from US companies. Hearings at the US International Trade Commission, an independent body, followed in early 2014 and the US Trade Representatives, a government agency. And as Prime Minister Modi reached the US for his fist visit after assuming office in September 2014, the USTR greeted him with a fresh probe.

Devyani Khobragade, a disaster is averted

Former Indian consul general Devyani Khobragade (centre) leaves with her father Uttam Khobragade from the Maharashtra Sadan state guesthouse to meet India’s foreign minister Salman Khurshid in New Delhi January 11, 2014. (Reuters file)

The Indian consul general’s arrest in New York in December 2013 sparked the worst diplomatic crisis in India-US relations in recent memory. Her arrest, for alleged false claims in a visa application for a domestic help who was to stay with her in New York, was followed by a mandatory strip search before being transferred to a holding cell before court appearance. Indians were outraged and demanded her immediate release. As diplomats of the two countries scrambled to diffuse a crisis that had blindsided them completely, Preet Bharara, US attorney for Manhattan, whose office was handling the prosecution of the case, announced the help’s family had been secretly brought to the US as they feared harassment in India. Khobragade was allowed to leave the US in January, 2014 ending a crisis that both the Obama administration nor Singh’s government were keen to put behind in the past.

‘Kem cho’, Obama greets Modi

Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi waves victory sign to the supporters during a road show after his arrival in New Delhi. (PTI file)

As guest at the residence of then Indian ambassador to the US, S Jaishankar took in the news of the BJP’s resounding victory in the parliamentary elections in May 2014, diplomats of the two countries huddled away from public view to set up a call between Prime Minister Modi and President Obama. They spoke and Obama invited Modi, an otherwise formulaic gesture that assumed outsized importance because of the history of the US denying Modi a visa, over the 2002 riots in Gujarat on his watch as chief minster. Modi accepted, of course, and showed up one October night outside the White House for an intimate dinner with Obama, who greeted him in Gujarati, “Kem cho (how are you). AS everyone else feasted on dinner of crisped Halibut, Modi nursed a glass of warm water as he was fasting.

India, US crosshair China

The next day, September 30, 2014, India and the US issued a joint statement that appealed to all parties in the South China sea dispute to resolve their differences amicably. That was the first time India and the US had officially, and on the record, projected a joint front against China. A small step that soon led to speculation about India and the US considering joint patrolling of the disputed waters. Both countries denied the move on the record but indicated in background briefings they did consider the possibility.

Twitter diplomacy, Obama returns to India, chews gum

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Barack Obama in New Delhi in 2015. (PTI file)

“This Republic Day, we hope to have a friend over…invited President Obama to be the 1st US President to grace the occasion as chief guest,” Modi wrote in a Tweet in November, 2014, breaking the news of Obama accepting the invitation, marking a double first for a US president: one, first US president to attend the Republic Day parade and, two, first US president to visit India twice while still in office. As he sat with Modi behind the protective bullet-proof glass barrier, Obama needed a break from an urge to smoke possibly and chewed on a gum to distract himself. People noticed and many of them felt insulted.

Obama calls for tolerance in India, invokes Gandhi

The next day, January 27. 2015, Obama appealed for religious tolerance in a speech from Siri Fort auditorium lobliquely calling into focus Modi government’s record on tolerance that had come under attack in recent months. “India will succeed as long as it’s not splintered along religious lines...nowhere is it more important to uphold religious freedom than in India,” he said. The fallout was immediate and stunning forcing the White House to try and explain away the president’s remarks as a reiteration of a personal belief system.

Back in DC a few days later, Obama doubled down on his remarks. “Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.”

Climate change and Paris

Pursuing Obama’s legacy move on climate change, the US bore down on India, isolating it from China, with whom New Delhi had ganged up in 2009 to prevent a global deal making every polluter equally responsible. India has argued for developed countries to accept a larger share of the blame and, thus, do more to address the issue. After a meeting between Modi and Obama on the sideline of the UN general assembly meeting in 2015, India announced its own goal for reducing carob emission. And Modi was one of Obama’s leading partners at the Paris accord meet in December 2005.

Last hoorah: Major defence partner

During Modi’s last visit to the US, in June 2016, with the US presidential election poised for a Hillary-Trump face-off, the Obama administration declared India a Major Defense Partner seeking to give a new name to a burgeoning defense partnership that was not as close as the US had with its NATO and NATO-plus allies and Israel but not as remote as India had grown up, on the fringe of America’s sphere of influence, and by its own choosing. India was now entitled to an enhanced degree of cooperation that allowed it previously unknown access to US defense equipment and technology with co-development and co-production as the new frontier of cooperation.

First Published: Jan 17, 2017 20:29 IST