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 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The rest of the programme had the imprimatur of PM 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 he flew to Riyadh to meet the new Saudi King Salman, there was heightened expectation on how President Obama would speak now that his host, the Indian PM, was not present. The PM had spent all his waking moments with President Obama while he was in India, which was joyfully explained by the media and the government handlers as the growing ‘chemistry’ between the two leaders. Prime Minister Modi, to the surprise of many in the foreign policy establishment, casually called him by his first name ‘Barack’ during the joint press conference. He also revealed that in this short while, President Obama had become a friend and they talk on the phone and also gossip. This cultivated informality elicited a gentle smile from the US visitor though.
President 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 background. ‘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 importantly, 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, practice, and propagate religion.’ He added that, ‘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.’ President Obama also forcefully stated that the ‘Constitution shapes our moral imagination.’
His words had a soothing effect on many of those who had 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. President Obama surely would not have been blind to reports of the heat Christians and Muslims had been feeling with the rise of majoritarian politics in India. Hindu chauvinist groups are engaged in ‘converting’ members of the minority community under the programme called ‘ghar wapasi’ or home coming ever since the new BJP government came to power.
Interestingly when President Obama was in town to attend the Republic Day celebrations, a government department issued an advertisement where India’s preamble was published from which two key words added after a constitutional amendment, ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism,’ were stealthily excised. This was noticed after the guest from the US had departed. Not unexpectedly, this created a furore compelling the government to pass an order that stated, henceforth, no preamble of the constitution would be carried without the missing words, ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism.’ It seems the government took President Obama’s gentle rebuke seriously and did not want to squander the gains made during the important visit by President Obama to India.
President Barack Obama’s 52-hour visit to India was significant for several more reasons. Not only was he the first US President to be the chief guest of the Republic Day parade, he was also the first to have visited the country twice during his term. To come to India, President Obama also altered the date of the State of the Union Address.
Why did he agree to change the date of the state of the Union Address to fly to India? Was some major breakthrough expected in ties between the two countries? If one looks at business that has been conducted between the two countries, it would become 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 world’s hegemony, the United States of America. He is of the same belief as 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 United States 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 US over short-changing a domestic worker brought the relationship to a new low.
When Narendra Modi had come to power in May 2014, an impression was created that he would try to build closer ties with China from his few 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 on his fascination with the way the China 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 spread the red carpet for President Xi Jinping, but the intrusion of Chinese troops in Chumar, Ladakh soured the trip. The RSS, ideological forebear of the BJP, put enormous pressure on Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh to take up the matter of Chinese intrusion with President Jinping. Home Minister Singh was particularly vitriolic towards 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, D.C. The Chinese intrusion had provided him the context of how he was to rebuild ties with the United States. In some ways the narrative that played out, of the big powerful Chinese neighbour threatening India, helped build ground for the United States’ 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 Man Singh, who said 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 states:
‘Recognizing 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’ re-balance 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 established ties with a neighbour were reconfigured, was to satisfy the United States, 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 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 US-based Heritage Foundation, are meeting in Indonesia to nuance how 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 that they can get a better deal with China if they have the backing of the United States. China in their reckoning would take India more seriously, and not mess around over disputed borders.
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 the coming days. The entry in NSG rankled with Pakistan and China, but the US is conveying to rest of the world that it has special relationship with India.
What has not really gotten much traction is the alignment of the US’ world view on the Middle East and the rise of ISIS. In his speech after the Joint Statement was signed, President 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 was 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 presence of Indian troops in Iraq and later in Afghanistan to ‘stabilise’ the region. India, due to its complex social reality and the implication on their 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 before, the 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 reside in Pakistan and there is a distinct possibility that the US may use 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 hidden by thick fog. 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 that it has made, before the new government in Washington steps in. In some ways it is a stiff timetable that the two countries have placed for themselves, and if they begin to move seriously to achieve some of these objectives, then the impact would be felt throughout Asia.
Sanjay Kapoor is the Editor of Delhi based Hardnews Magazine, which is the South Asian partner of Paris based publication, Le Monde Diplomatique.