Posted by: John Elliott | January 21, 2015

Obama’s India trip is significant but expect limited results

Delhi’s international airport was closed for two hours yesterday morning because President Obama is visiting India. He’s wasn’t however in the country and is not arriving for another four days, but everything is being rehearsed down to the finest detail, even closing the airspace around the capital.

That is partly because of intense and almost suffocating security arrangements that are being insisted on by Obama’s secret service officials, but it is also because any bureaucrat who mucks up the three day visit knows he will earn the unenviable wrath of Narendra Modi, the prime minister.

IndiaTv8a6a87_obama_modi_martinThis is no ordinary visit. It will probably achieve little in terms of major decisions, but it is historic because it stems from a degree of personal rapport between the two men that must be envied even by David Cameron, the latest of a long line of British prime ministers who pursue high profile special relationships with American presidents.

The idea of the visit emerged when Obama unexpectedly broke with US presidential tradition and accompanied Modi on a visit to Martin Luther King’s memorial in Washington DC early last October (left and below). While they were walking round the memorial, Obama had an unusual worry, Aditi Phadnis the Business Standard’s well-connected political editor has reported.

“My daughters, Sasha and Malia, complain that I’ve taken them all round the world but not to India,” Obama told Modi. (When Obama visited India in 2010, his wife Michelle accompanied him but their daughters were left in Washington because of school commitments).

“Then you should come to India and bring them with you!” exclaimed Modi, responding quickly to what may or may not have been a carefully orchestrated request. At the end of his bilateral meeting speech, Modi said: “I look forward to receiving President Obama and his family in India at a convenient time.” The visit was on the table and was clinched when the two leaders met again a few weeks later in Myanmar at an ASEAN summit. Obama accepted an invitation to be the official guest at India’s annual Republic Day parade on January 26, even though this meant shifting his State of the Union Speech from the 28th to yesterday. [January 27: the daughters did not come, again because of school commitments, but Obama said he would bring them another time].

This shows a remarkable rapport between the two men, but it remains to be seen whether there is to be a sea change in relations. The two countries are not and will not be allies, even though Modi did use that word around the time of his highly successful US visit last October. This is because India’s refusal to toe the American line on various issues, which is causing considerable friction.

Obama Modi MLK

There is deep unhappiness in Washington about India not implementing sanctions against Iran and allowing Crimea’s prime minister to be in President Putin’s delegation when he visited Delhi in December. India is also not playing ball on a trans-pacific treaty promoted by the US. There are other issues including trade policies and defence contracts, plus a failure to solve contractual liability problems stemming from a 2008 deal on nuclear power projects. Some but not all of these have either been addressed or will be during the visit, especially on defence.

Modi sees foreign policy primarily as a vehicle for building relationships that will attract foreign investment and technical assistance to boost India’s currently poor economic growth and business investment and he does not differentiate between the sources.

In a spate of visits that started soon after he was elected last year, Modi secured (unspecified) announcements of $35bn potential infrastructure investment in Japan and $41bn possibilities from companies in the US. There was also talk of a very vague $20bn from China when President Xi Jinping visited India in October. Putin’s trip to Delhi in December led to other possible deals, and it is significant that Russia’s defence minister has been in Delhi this week – another point that cannot please Washington.

Next weekend’s visit is however enabling the US-India relationship to be reset and reinvigorated. It slipped during the 2009-14 Congress-led government when there were various policy and other blockages and there was no leadership from either Obama or Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister. That was enabling critics in Washington to encourage problems that were not solved.

Modi can now be expected to try to keep the momentum going after all the hullabaloo of the visit. He wants to have enough big-sounding announcements to make the trip look businesslike, but his immediate task is to make sure that the trip goes smoothly, without terrorist or other interruptions, so that the American president and his wife enjoy the Republic Day parade and a visit to the Taj Mahal at Agra [cancelled because Obama left India a few hours early  to fly to Saudi Arabia and meet the new King after the death of his predecessor] on January 26 and 27, and then fly safely home.

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  1. John, Your impeccable analysis. Undoubtedly, we must ensure his visit to be both safe, memorable and one filled with Joy.

    He would have to come as a commoner, unless he scores a historical hat trick, could be? AS for the knotty vexing issues, India must have a balanced approach weighing in our priorities as well. It has to be win win win win for people, industry, politically and sovereignty. It can not be my way. Indian hawks must do a balanced act, neither bending too much backwards nor falling a flat prostrate. Yes, we do need investments and technology, but we have brought upon us this situation through all these years. There is no dearth of money, but technology is badly needed. we messed up right royal. Therefore, do what must be done, but astutely and intelligently, without rushing through.

    WE must also see the regional balances as well our time tested friends.

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