Indo-US: ‘Friend Barack’

US President Barack Obama’s second visit to India may contribute in re-aligning the contours of our foreign policy

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

US President Barack Obama’s town hall engagement with the people of Delhi in the capital’s Siri Fort auditorium was the only public programme that was not choreographed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The rest of the programme had the imprimatur of Modi who turned every interaction with the visiting US President into a major media event.

As the town hall meeting was the last programme before President Obama flew to Riyadh to meet the new Saudi ruler, there was heightened expectation on how he would speak now that his host, the Indian PM, was not present. The PM had spent all his waking moments with Obama while the latter was in India, which was joyfully explained away by the media and the government handlers as the growing ‘chemistry’ between the two leaders. Modi, to the surprise of many in the foreign policy establishment, casually addressed Obama by his first name during the joint press conference. He also revealed that, in this short while, Obama had become a friend and they speak on the phone and also gossip. This elicited a gentle smile from the President, though.

Obama pressed the right buttons during the town hall meeting. He spoke about the strength of the relationship between the two democracies and how it provides mobility to people from humble backgrounds. “Even as we live in a world of wrenching inequities, we’re also proud to live in countries where even the grandson of a cook can become President, even a Dalit can help write a Constitution, and even a tea-seller can become Prime Minister,” he said.

More important, though, he cited Article 25 of the Indian Constitution that states that all people are “equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise, and propagate religion”. He added, “In both our countries, in all countries, upholding this fundamental freedom is the responsibility of government, but it’s also the responsibility of every person.” He further stated that India will prosper if it isn’t splintered along religious lines. Obama also forcefully stated that the “Constitution shapes our moral imagination”.

His words had a soothing effect on many of those who have been distressed by the rise of dark forces that have aggressively abhorred Constitutionally mandated secularism and the level playing field that it provides to minorities. Obama surely would not have been blind to reports of the heat Christians and Muslims have been facing with the rise of majoritarian politics in India. Hindu chauvinist groups are engaged in “converting” members of the minority community under the ghar wapsi programme or homecoming since the new BJP government came to power.

Interestingly, while Obama was in town to attend the Republic Day celebrations, a government department issued an advertisement in which the Preamble to the Indian Constitution was published from which two key words, added in a Constitutional amendment, ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’, were stealthily excised. This was noticed after the American guest’s departure. It led to a furore, compelling the government to pass an order stating henceforth the Preamble would not be carried without the missing words. It seems the government took President Obama’s gentle rebuke seriously and did not want to squander the gains made during the crucial visit.

The 52-hour visit was significant for several other reasons. Not only was he the first US President to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, he was also the first to have visited the country twice while in office. And, to come to India, President Obama altered the date of the State of the Union Address.

Why did he agree to change the date? Was some major breakthrough expected in ties between the two countries? If one looks at the business that has been conducted between the two countries, it is apparent that the new Indian government is slowly aligning its foreign policy with that of the United States. In Narendra Modi, India has one of the staunchest supporters for close ties with the US. He shares the belief of former PM Manmohan Singh that India can grow at a rapid pace only when it attains close ties with the US. After the global recession and the gradual decline of the US as a world power, India began to see wisdom in multi-polarity that meant building closer ties with China and Russia, along with other emerging powers. Since 2008, the relationship between the two countries did not really grow after the Indian parliament noisily passed the civilian nuclear deal. Subsequent incidents like the ouster of an Indian diplomat from the US over short-changing a domestic worker took the relationship to a new low.

When Modi came to power in May 2014, an impression was created that he would try to build closer ties with China with his trips to Beijing and other cities. At the time, the US had refused to grant him a visa for his alleged role in the genocide against Muslims in Gujarat. His China visit provided ample hints about his fascination with the way the country had galloped at a furious pace to become the world’s biggest economy. The Chinese government too, was cognisant of Modi’s preference, and had scheduled two quick trips, first for their foreign minister, and later, the state visit of President Xi Jinping.

Modi had rolled out the red carpet for Xi, but the intrusion of Chinese troops in Chumar, Ladakh, soured the trip. The RSS  put enormous pressure on Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh to take up the matter with Xi. The Home Minister was particularly vitriolic about the intrusion.

Barely a few days after the Chinese President’s visit to Delhi, Modi went to New York to address the UN General Assembly, and later on a state visit to Washington, DC. The Chinese intrusion had provided him a context to rebuild ties with the US. In some ways, the narrative that played out, of the big powerful Chinese neighbour threatening India, helped pave the way for the US support of India to keep China in check.

Corroboration of how China was playing on the minds of the Indian PM and US President came not just in the Joint Statement, but also in some of the newspaper reports from Washington. The New York Times claimed that both leaders talked at length about how they perceived China. There was a helpful quote from former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh, who said words to the effect that the Chinese could not be trusted. It was also suggested that the US and India were on the same page regarding China. What could that mean? The Joint Statement, much quoted, provides evidence of how the two countries are aligned.

Section 4 of the US-India Joint Statement says:

“Recognising the important role that both countries play in promoting peace, prosperity, stability, and security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, and noting that India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and the United States’ rebalance to Asia provide opportunities for India, the United States, and other Asia-Pacific countries to work closely to strengthen regional ties, the Leaders announced a Joint Strategic Vision to guide their engagement in the region.”

This statement shocked many strategic experts who saw it as a deliberate attempt to provoke the Chinese government. The reason for reconfiguring established ties with a neighbour was satisfying the US, claimed a strategic expert. What was also reiterated was that India, under Modi, wants to revive the quad of Japan, Australia, India, and the US — dubbed by China in the past as the ‘Asian NATO’. Earlier, India had stepped out of this compact with Beijing’s opposition. But endorsement by Delhi is lending meaning, not just to the quad, but also to Asia as a pivot — which Obama’s presidency conceived as a counterpoint to China.

Conservative think-tanks like the Vivekananda Foundation, which is close to the BJP government, along with the US-based Heritage Foundation, are meeting in Indonesia to nuance how the quad can balance China.

All these moves were preceded by the fiction that China’s growth has begun to falter, and it is the US economy’s revival that will refuel the global economy.

Modi and his strategists believe they can get a better deal with China if they have the backing of the US. China, in their reckoning, would take India more seriously, and not mess around over disputed borders and other things.

The announcement by India and the US removed a major obstacle regarding the breakthrough achieved on the issue of liability of the civilian nuclear deal — termed as the cornerstone of ties between the two countries. The US government’s resolve to smooth India’s entry into the Nuclear Supply Group and other nuclear-related entities is a quiet trade-off of what India is expected to accomplish in coming days. The NSG entry rankled with Pakistan and China, but the US is conveying to the rest of the world that it has a special relationship with India.

What has not really gotten much traction is alignment with the US’ worldview on the Middle East and the rise of ISIS. In his speech after the Joint Statement was signed, Obama talked about exploring a larger role for India in the region. He also spoke about India’s UN peace-keeping tradition and how it gained greater meaning. There is a way to interpret this remark.

For years, the US has been trying to compel India to shoulder greater responsibility if it aspired to be a regional player. The US had requested the presence of Indian troops in Iraq and later in Afghanistan to ‘stabilise’ the region. India, due to its complex social reality and the implication for its society and politics, had turned down these suggestions. US officials had mocked the contradiction in India’s conduct: trying to be a regional player without shouldering responsibility.

As mentioned above, a Reuters report had stated alignment between the two countries on ISIS. While this relationship may start through intelligence sharing, there is a possibility of Indian troops being used in this region in the future.

The Joint Statement also indicates real-time engagement for developing actionable elements of bilateral engagement to counter terrorists. This has been interpreted as joint operations to hunt down those who are designated as terrorists by the UN. Many of these terrorists live in Pakistan and there is a distinct possibility that the US may make use of the new government’s desire to take out terrorist training camps.

The US-India engagement is a work in progress. The framework for the defence agreement between the two countries is yet to be ratified. How the nuclear liability issue has been sorted is still obscured. There are other issues too, pertaining to climate change.

Be that as it may, the BJP government has a window of about 16 months to move rapidly on many of the commitments it has made, before the new government in Washington steps in. In some ways it is a stiff timetable that the two countries have set up for themselves and if they begin to move seriously to achieve some of these objectives, the impact will be felt in the rest of Asia too.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2015