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Beyond The Obama-Modi Bromance

26/01/2015 4:42 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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SAUL LOEB via Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (2R) greets US President Barack Obama (2L) as he arrives to attend India's Republic Day Parade in New Delhi on January 26, 2015. Barack Obama will become the first US president to be chief guest at India's Republic Day parade on January 26, a day after hailing a new era of friendship between the world's biggest democracies. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

"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." Thus tweeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last November. The response to the unusual invitation came a little while later from the White House: "President Obama looks forward to celebrating Republic Day in New Delhi with you."

The manner of this unusual--if crisply choreographed--exchange reflected the two leaders' styles, and captured their innovative use of social media. The extension of the invitation by Modi to India's national celebration, and its acceptance by Obama ensured that the president's second visit to India would be a groundbreaking one. Symbolically, it sidelines the anti-American sentiments that had come to dominate the Indian political sphere (regardless of favourable public opinion of the United States). And when he finally arrived in New Delhi this week, Obama received a rock star's welcome, years after some of the shine had begun to wear off his presidency.

But beyond the symbolism and the obvious personal bonhomie (Obama and Modi were photographed drinking tea, joking, and hugging) this visit managed to accomplish some of the objectives that were unresolved from when Modi visited the United States last year on his equally groundbreaking maiden trip. The bilateral joint statement that has emerged from New Delhi is extensive, a laundry list of many of the issues being discussed by the US and Indian governments.

Official negotiations have a tendency to be bogged down in bureaucracies, at one or both ends. And this is particularly true when it comes to technical or legal discussions, when either one or both negotiating teams lacks the authority to stray from their guidelines. Today, high-profile bilateral summits serve a useful function in providing clear deadlines for decisions to be reached, and forcing negotiators to compromise.

Such periodic brinkmanship has been a hallmark of India-U.S. engagement since at least 1998, when India conducted a series of nuclear tests. Bilateral India-US negotiations have been described in detail by the likes of former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Indian scholar and journalist C. Raja Mohan, the Indian Prime Minister's former media adviser Sanjaya Baru, and academic Rudra Chaudhuri in their books, and hint at some of the limitations of bureaucratized working-level talks.

Similar negotiations were taking place over the past few months, and Obama's visit enabled a series of compromises, detailed in the joint statement and a joint press conference. Headlines will undoubtedly be dominated by the two leaders announcing an agreement on civil nuclear liability, an issue that had stymied U.S. civilian nuclear commerce with India despite a U.S.-led initiative between 2005 and 2008 to grant India access to nuclear imports and investments. The lack of compromise had lead to much frustration with India in Washington, and limited cooperation in an area that has important implications for India's energy needs and economic growth.

A further set of agreements relates to defense. In addition to agreeing to a ten-year defence framework agreement, which follows a similar agreement signed in 2005, the two sides agreed to operationalize four small-scale joint defence development initiatives. These include jointly developing and improving tactical Raven drones for battlefield scenarios, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment for C-130J aircraft, protection for soldiers against chemical and biological weapons, and mobile electric hybrid power sources. They also agreed to start talks on the joint development of jet engines and aircraft carriers, which are far more ambitious and long-term.

Finally, the two sides agreed to establish, continue, or strengthen a series of discussions, financing initiatives, and technical information sharing endeavours. These relate to economic growth, energy and the environment, and technological fields such as health and space. While an agreement comparable to that between the United States and China on climate targets was not forthcoming, nor realistically expected, clean energy initiatives find considerable space in the joint statement. Additionally, there were a range of issues related to third countries and regions, the most important of which was the Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region.

There are unrealistic expectations in many quarters that every bilateral summit between India and the United States should involve a breakthrough akin to the civil nuclear agreement under George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh. But that agreement was only necessary because there was a preexisting disagreement over India's nuclear program that was holding back ties. As the relationship has moved toward normal, even friendly, territory, we can expect more summits in the future in which leaders simply demonstrate their commitment to the relationship and make incremental, but nonetheless important, forward movement in a number of areas of mutually-beneficial cooperation.

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