by Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra

President Barack Obama is the only US President who visited India twice while in office, and the first US president to grace India’s Republic Day celebrations on 26 January 2015. When the Air Force One touched the ground in Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke the protocol and went to the tarmac to receive the President. Their bear hug and backslapping delighted the media and the public. Obama visited the Gandhi memorial to pay tribute to the father of the nation, called Gandhi ‘apostle of peace’, and planted a sapling on the memorial ground. At a joint press conference, Obama greeted the press and praised Modi in Hindi. Are these events symbolic or do they reflect increasing cordiality with practical implications for the two countries? I argue there are both elements, and both have significance for bilateral and international relations.

One of the powerful messages of the visit is that the relations are no longer viewed in Cold War terms. The ice of mistrust has melted. During the Cold War India was considered an ally of the Soviet Union. The developments during that period confirmed the bipolarization of international politics. The perception persisted for quite some time, but after the visit of Bill Clinton in 2000 the perception started to change and the relations improved. The Obama visits, in 2010 and 2015, dispelled doubts and imparted new meaning to relations in the post-Cold War global order. While the US is the oldest democracy in the world, India is the largest democracy. The joint statement during the visit reads, “Partnership between the United States and India is rooted in shared values of democracy and strong economic and people-to-people ties.”

An opinion piece in one of China’s leading news daily Global Times on 26 January cautioned, in the context of Obama’s India visit, “India, China mustn’t fall into trap of rivalry set by the West”. China is suspicious that strengthening of the relations between India and the US may not prove beneficial to it. The rise of China has given rise to mixed signals in the Asia-Pacific and some of China’s neighbors, particularly the ones with which it has disputes, have seen the rise with apprehensions. The US’ recent ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy has not been received well by Beijing, and sections of the Chinese establishment perceive a combination of India’s ‘Act East’ strategy with the US strategy as detrimental to China’s interests. The joint statement argued, “India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and the United States’ rebalance to Asia provide opportunities for India, the United States, and other Asia-Pacific countries” for “peace, prosperity, stability and security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.”

The two democracies have huge potentials to explore together. Currently at $62 billion, the bilateral trade has the potential to reach $500 billion by 2025. One of the major developments during the visit was to give concrete shape to the civilian nuclear agreement. Obama emphasized on ‘breakthrough understanding’ that the two countries reached on nuclear cooperation during his visit. The new terms of cooperation will facilitate investment of the US based companies in nuclear energy in India. India and the US renewed the bilateral Defense Strategic framework that covers various aspects of defense cooperation, including the Defense Trade Technological Initiative. Modi and Obama emphasized on the urgency to fight terrorism in a cooperative framework, and perhaps for the first time a joint statement between the two countries mentioned terrorist groups – Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D Company and the Haqqani Network – based in Pakistan. This is considered a diplomatic victory for the policymakers in New Delhi, who used to perceive the US policies towards South Asia Pakistan-centric. The joint statement also mentioned areas like defense, infrastructure, clean energy, building smart cities, etc. as potential areas for cooperation. Prime Minister Modi assured the investors from the US a business friendly environment, including a stable tax regime, in India.

Differences persisted on issues like climate change as India expressed reservation against signing an agreement on carbon emissions. India is interested to have a liberal visa regime for Indian workers, including IT professionals, in the US, and more US investment in India. There are also differences pertaining to bilateral investment treaty, clean and renewable energy and technology.

People-to-people interaction is a strong element in bilateral relations. Particularly the Indians based in the US play a cultural bridge between the two countries. It may not be a coincidence that the dress the US first lady, Michelle Obama, wore during the banquet at the presidential palace in Delhi was designed by a New York based Indian-American designer.

Skeptics in India, though few in number, term the Obama visit more symbolic less substantial. Some of them point out that Obama is a lame-duck President and may not take bold steps to strengthen bilateral relations. The majority mood, however, is optimistic. The personal rapport Modi enjoys with Obama is perhaps unparalleled. Modi who served as Chief Minister of an Indian state for more than a decade is known for his pro-development policies, and with the Indian economy bouncing back to a growth rate of more than six percent in the coming fiscal year, it is possible that India-US partnership will be more substantive in coming months. While Modi argued that the Obama visit has taken the relations to “a whole new level”, Obama argued, “a strong relationship with India is critical to America’s success in the 21st century”.

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a PhD candidate in the Global Governance and Human Security Program at UMass Boston. He is also a center fellow at the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy.