The three-day state visit by the United States President Barack Obama to India has been extraordinarily rich in political symbolism. It followed an initiative by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to invite Obama to be the chief guest at India’s national day celebrations on January 26.
Modi himself had visited Washington only four months ago and Obama’s acceptance of the invitation also signified an unprecedented second visit by an incumbent American president to India.
With the dust settling down on the colorful visit, stocktaking begins. There are three templates to consider – one, how to decipher the political symbolism as such; two, what has been the substantive outcome of the visit and what lies ahead for the India-US relations; and, three, how the upgrade of the relationship impacts the power dynamic in Asia-Pacific.
Without doubt, New Delhi and Washington have signaled a political resolve to re-energize the relationship, which has been under the weather in the past 2 to 3 years. Looking back, the high expectations raised by the former prime minister Manmohan Singh to Washington in 2009 and Obama’s return visit in 2010 could not be fulfilled, which took the shine off the India-US relationship.
Essentially, the Obama administration was waiting till the political uncertainties in India cleared up after the April-May 2014 election. Modi himself went the extra league during his September visit to underscore that he not only carried no ill will, but was eager to energize the ties with the US. And Washington has estimated that it can do business with Modi whom it not only sees as ‘pro-reform’ like his predecessor but also as someone who would make a more meaningful, effective and resolute interlocutor than Manmohan Singh.
For Modi, a lavish display of friendship with ‘Barack’ holds advantages in domestic politics. Obama, who has a reputation for being aloof, is willing to play along. Meanwhile, for Obama, whose presidency is under relentless attack at home, resuscitation of the US-Indian relationship is a foreign-policy legacy. The Modi-Obama bonding is a match made in heaven.
Having said that, Obama’s visit failed to produce a substantive outcome. He made no commitments regarding US investments. No accord could be reached on climate change (which was apparently a priority). The India-US defence agreement has been renewed for another ten-year period but no flagship project was announced on co-production or joint development of military technology. Nor did India sign any new contracts for American weaponry.
A significant outcome devolves upon the «breakthrough» in finding a formula that could remove the discord between the two governments over India’s nuclear liability law. But there is no clarity whether the understanding reached at the governmental level (details of which haven’t been divulged) would stand scrutiny in a court of law or even prompt the American companies to shed their inhibitions over the Indian law (which, they say, does not conform to the international covenants on liability in nuclear commerce.)
In short, the balance sheet is poor, but the media hype is that this has been a ‘transformative’ visit. The truly transformative visits in the relationship have been two – visit by Bill Clinton in March 2000, auguring a historic course correction in the US’ unfriendly cold-war era policies, and by George W. Bush in March 2006 against the backdrop of the US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement, which promised a paradigm shift in the strategic ties. In comparison, Obama’s visit falls in a category by itself – an earnest joint effort to salvage the relationship and put it on a forward-looking trajectory.
How far Modi and Obama succeeded, time only will tell. The Indians are notorious for praising their leaders’ ‘personal chemistry’ with western statesmen, blithely overlooking that convergence of interests is the bedrock of inter-state relationships. The sustainability of the excellent climate in the India-US relations will depend on the follow-up. What can be said for the present is that there is enormous interest on both sides to do this, but, equally, there is a sense of déjà vu among dispassionate onlookers.
The heart of the matter is that the sort of market access that the US is demanding and the high Indian expectations regarding American investments are unrealistic in a near term. The testimonies by the IMF and World Bank that India is on a high growth path exceeding China’s within a year or two must add up – and there is no empirical evidence. Systemic issues are many, and the international economic environment is not encouraging. The recovery of the US economy has not stabilized.
Delhi claims that «investor perception about India has reversed dramatically after years of stagnation» – to quote the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. But Jaitley also candidly admitted that such optimism is «tempered with caution» as regards the government’s ability to deliver.
Regional tensions and fatcats
The only foreign-policy statement to come out of Obama’s visit has been a ‘joint strategic vision statement’ regarding Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Interestingly, the statement had nothing to say regarding Pakistan, which is an obsessive foreign-policy issue for the Hindu nationalists who mentor the Modi government. Obama said not a word regarding Pakistan or its alleged support for terrorism, which is a big departure from his 2010 visit to India. Profound differences remain between the two countries regarding Pakistan, the most vexatious regional issue in Modi’s foreign-policy calculus at the moment.
The ‘joint strategic statement’ turned out to be a rehash of the positions articulated in the joint statement issued after Modi’s visit to Washington and it, once again, contains a tendentious reference to the South China Sea. The American side has given the spin that the Obama-Modi talks on regional issues heavily focused on China’s ‘assertive’ policies.
The pro-American analysts in the Indian media have rushed to the conclusion that under Modi, India is veering round to «an eventual amalgamation of India’s Act East (policies in south east Asia) and the US’ Asia pivot». Their preposterous thesis is that Modi is jettisoning India’s inhibition about the US’ containment strategy against China.
Indeed, the US objective has always been to recruit India in its containment strategy against China. The idea of a ‘quadripartite alliance’ between the US, Japan, Australia and India is at least a decade old, dating from the high noon of the neocon ideology in the George W Bush presidency. Obama’s former defence secretary Leon Panetta once famously named India as a ‘lynchpin’ in the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia.
However, the moment Obama and the spin doctors in his entourage took off for home, Indian officials scrambled to do fire-fighting, distancing themselves from their «strategic misinterpretation» of the joint strategic vision statement. According to them, Modi made it clear to Obama that India’s independent foreign policies would not allow any «third power» (read US) to forge a common front against China.
Delhi is anxious that the Americans and their lobbyists in India do not choreograph Modi’s forthcoming visit to China. A senior Indian diplomat briefed the media that Indian External Affairs Minister is leaving for China on Friday and on her return, the National Security Advisor will also travel to Beijing to prepare for Modi’s visit. The diplomat has been quoted as saying, «President Xi is keen to host him [Modi] in his hometown Xian».
Why are the Americans spreading such «strategic misinterpretation» of Modi’s thinking on China? Washington seems acutely conscious that the US cannot match China as an investor in Modi’s ‘Make in India’ project. The US’ big worry is that if the proposed railway project by China in India involving $32 billion goes through (on top of the offer made by China during Xi’s visit to India in September on a $20 billion investment plan to set up industrial parks), the Sino-Indian relationship would profoundly transform.
The heart of the matter is that Modi’s development agenda (on which his mandate in the 2014 election rests) focuses on the infrastructure and manufacturing sectors, since they only hold big potential to generate jobs for India’s millions of unemployed youth – and it is China that makes an ideal partner, given its vast experience in these sectors.
On the other hand, the bottom line has always been that the verve and swagger of the India-US ‘strategic partnership’ needs as fodder an incessant supply of Sino-Indian tensions. Such tensions vitiate the regional security environment and create acute anxieties in the Indian mind and in turn would provide the ideal business climate for the fatcats in the US military-industrial complex. It is a vicious cycle.
The great American fear today is that Modi might break this cycle and put India-China relations on a predictable footing. From the Chinese commentaries on Obama’s visit, Beijing is aware of the American attempt to hustle Modi towards the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia. And Delhi is hastening to clarify that proximity to the US will not translate as alliance against China. An element of strategic ambiguity has appeared. Much will now depend on the outcome of Modi’s forthcoming visit to China.