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#4601, 11 August 2014

Eagle Eye

Obama Administration: Re-engaging India
Chintamani Mahapatra
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU

After months of downgrading its engagement with the Indian government, US President Barack Obama’s administration has woken up to the new reality of a transformed political profile in New Delhi, and has managed to alter its diplomatic course.

The Devyani Khobragade episode had cast a shadow over the much-trumpeted US-India strategic partnership. It was followed by disturbing headlines on the bilateral, when the May 2014 national election catapulted Narendra Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to the centre-stage of Indian politics. The massive popular mandate to the BJP has meant a stable central government for next five years in India that effectively replaces decades-long coalition politics and a recent tendency towards federalisation of Indian foreign policy making. 

The difficulty for the US was to begin dialoguing with the new Indian strongman who was, for years, denied a US visa. There is no parallel in the US history to the denial of a visa to a three-time chief minister of a democratic country. 

However, the US’ pragmatism has always been legendary. Soon after it was clear that Narendra Modi would lead the next government in India, Obama dialled ‘M’ for Modi, congratulated him and invited him to visit Washington at an agreeable time. Modi’s pragmatism has been equally legendary and he promptly concurred. 

Modi, nonetheless, gave no impression whatsoever that he was too eager to make a trip to a country that refused him access for an alleged violation of human rights that had been cleared by the Supreme Court of India. His decision to invite the SAARC heads of states to his inauguration; choosing Bhutan for his first foreign visit; postpone a planned visit to Tokyo; but miss no chance to meet with the Chinese and Russian leaders at the BRICS summit; and to ask his External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to choose Bangladesh for her first foreign visit; signalled that Modi would maintain relationships with the US, and its allies on his own terms.

The Obama Administration, on the other hand, did not take things lying down. The US’ persistence is reflected in the fact that thirteen officials from Washington have already visited New Delhi to establish contacts with their counterparts at various levels. Three cabinet level officers, the US Secretary of State, the US Commerce Secretary and the US Secretary of Defense visited India and met Prime Minister Modi, along with others, to kick-start the momentum in the bilateral relations.

Next month, Modi will head to Washington for his first summit with Obama. While the US cabinet level officials visited Delhi to prepare for the Obama-Modi summit in September, surprisingly, none at the cabinet level from India has visited Washington yet. 

It appears that more than New Delhi, it is Washington that is keen to bury the past and move ahead to repair the relationship and build further. Significantly, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated during his visit that he would not like to dig the past and that, in any case, Modi was denied visa by the previous Republican Administration. In fact, a post on Twitter mentioned that President Obama was unaware of the denial of visa to Modi. 

Similarly, one could make the point that the US-India differences over airline security, pharmaceutical business, solar panel manufacturing, Indian steel and several other issues that constituted headline news should not be allowed to affect Indo-US ties in other areas. 

In fact, Kerry came to India like a diplomatic sales-executive to promote cooperation in the energy sector; Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker came to impress upon India the importance of signing the Trade Facilitation Act (TFA) at the World Trade Organisation and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, during his visit, sought to discuss defence deals worth billions of dollars. 

Clearly, India’s civil nuclear liability act is a road block to fulfil Secretary Kerry’s desire for full-fledged energy cooperation and the Modi government’s firm decision to not sacrifice India’s food security policy at the TFA’s altar is a disappointment for Secretary Penny. 

While the Kerry-Penny visit to India coincided with the vote on the FTA at the WTO, and India’s refusal to lend its support overshadowed their visit, Hagel’s visit to India pumped some positive energy into the bilateral relationship. Compared to the India-US economic and diplomatic ties, defence ties between the two countries appear more cooperative and less controversial. Despite differences over pricing, technology transfer, the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement, and end-user agreement, India was the largest market for US weapons last year, and has already purchased $10 billion worth of defence equipment over the past decade.

Unlike the recent US initiatives towards India, the Modi government’s plans and proposals to better ties with Washington still has a veil of secrecy. The government is still in its infancy, though. Nonetheless, one expects clarity of Modi’s moves towards the US during his September summit with Obama.

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