~ By Ram Madhav Varanasi
India is looking forward to US President Barack Obama’s visit to Delhi as the guest of honour at this year’s Republic Day parade on January 26. Neither the fact that he is the outgoing president nor that it is his second visit as president dampens the enthusiasm in the Indian establishment.
Coming a few months after the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, this visit has understandably been seen by some as India’s effort at a balancing act. However it must be kept in mind that Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy approach is non-conventional. He has freed Indian diplomacy from romantic slogan-mongering and embarked on a pragmatic ‘India’s interest’ path. Even when he is on a multilateral mission his focus is on bilateralism with ‘India’s interest’ as the benchmark. Thus for him, the visit of the Chinese president and the forthcoming visit of the US president are, far from being a balancing act, two independent events that have great bearing on India’s diplomatic objectives.
US-India relations have seen many ups and downs. When Prime Minister Modi took over many skeptics thought that the relationship would go from bad to worse because of the visa related acrimony between the two in the last one decade. But Prime Minister Modi displayed great statesmanship by leaving behind all the personal insults and ill-will and embarking on a major charm offensive. As an astute politician he used his visit to the US in October last to attend the United Nations General Assembly to set bilateral relations on a different course.
He spent just 24 hours in Washington DC. But in that short visit he was able to achieve so much, the most important being the demolition of the skepticism and creation of confidence. President Obama too responded positively to the overtures thus laying a firm foundation for a redefined relationship.
India and US are the world’s most populous and successful democracies. Both share several political, ethical and moral values. Thus the two are seen by many as natural allies. India’s four million strong diaspora population is a binding factor between the two countries. Both have benefited in all these years whenever the relations were cordial. Both have suffered due to misunderstandings and consequent strain in relationship too.
The joint statement issued by both the leaders during PM Modi’s visit to Washington DC comprehensively outlined the agenda for cooperation and development. It described the new initiative as a “long-term vision for a resilient and ambitious partnership” and “guiding framework” for the people and the government. The joint statement aptly underscored that ‘prosperity and security’ are the expected end result of the strategic partnership between the two countries. On his part, Prime Minister Modi was categorical in emphasizing that India accords ‘priority’ to its partnership with the United States in order to ‘realize India’s rise as a responsible, influential world power’.
Prime Minister Modi, continuing his determined effort to upgrade the relations, has invited President Obama to attend this year’s Republic Day parade. President Obama too displayed his goodwill by accepting the invitation. It is now up to the two leaders to use the opportunity to chart out a road map for future.
Economics plays an important role in the relationship between the two countries. Prime Minister Modi is aggressively pushing forward a development agenda that requires massive investments from all over. The US can be one of the important countries to supplement the efforts and support this agenda. PM Modi’s vision of providing a better life to his people calls for massive investment in the fields of infrastructure, education, skill development, healthcare and manufacturing. He has taken several steps like raising caps to encourage FDI in many areas including insurance, real estate etc. Several infrastructure areas like roads, railways, ports, defence are also partially or fully opened up for foreign equity participation. Much awaited and much needed amendments to the Land Acquisition Act too have taken place bolstering investor confidence especially in the infrastructure areas.
The US has good scope to enter into these areas by enhancing its investments. The Indo-US bilateral trade stands at $ 100 billion today. Prime Minister Modi has ambitious plans for a ten-fold growth of Indian economy from present $ 2 trillion. That gives enormous scope for the bilateral trade also to grow from current figures to $ 500 billion as envisaged by the leaders of the two countries.
Besides economy and trade there are areas like counter-terrorism and regional security, environment and climate change etc. in which the two countries have a greater scope to cooperate. Climate change area is a potential minefield for both the countries. UN Climate Change regime talks are due for the end of this year in Paris where a new world order on climate change is expected to be announced. There is a lot of jostling taking place between the developed and developing countries over the reduction of hydrofluorocarbon – HFC emissions. Although the US has reasonably amended its position the concerns of the Third World countries over the emergence of an unequal regime remain relevant. India has been firmly opposing any unjust order in climate change regime so far. It can’t be complacent even at this stage of greater bonhomie with the US. It would be a better idea to designate a Special Envoy for Climate Change Negotiations and deploy aggressive PR in the next few months so that the UN member countries can be properly sensitized about the need for a just and equitable world climate regime.
Counter-terrorism and regional and homeland security are comparatively easier areas for India and US to cooperate. As two major democracies in the world with pluralist ethos and values the two countries recognise their responsibility to jointly work towards ameliorating the situation in West Asia, Middle East and Pak-Af regions. The rise of ISIL calls for a totally new approach by the democratic world especially in the light of the incidents in Paris and other European cities. Close to two thousand European citizens have reportedly joined ISIL in the last few months. Deradicalisation programs thus acquire greater significance and urgency.
Besides ISIL, the two countries have to reach a common understanding about the situation in the Pak-Af region. So far the US’ stand on Pakistan has remained a matter of concern to India. Despite unequivocal evidence linking Pakistan with global terror the US has adopted ostrich approach going to the ridiculous extent of manufacturing Good Taliban-Bad Taliban distinction. In its eagerness to appease the potential trouble maker in the region the US has shown little sensitivity to the concerns of countries like India. As recently as last month the US Congress has again released $ 100 Billion aid to Pakistan brushing aside objections from many from within and without.
However there appears to be some rethinking of late. Secretary Kerry for the first time asked Pakistan to neutralise terror groups on ‘both sides’ that are engaged in cross border terrorism. President Obama is expected to give out similar signals as his gesture of calling up the prime minister of Pakistan immediately after accepting India’s invitation for the Republic Day has not been appreciated by the hosts.
There are challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, especially in South China Sea about which references were made by Prime Minister Modi at the ASEAN meeting in Myanmar as well as in the joint statement with President Obama. This region has become the new hub of trade activity. The global power axis has moved away from the Pacific-Atlantic region to Indo-Pacific region. Growing prosperity of the countries in the region is leading to growing tensions too. As a major country in the region India has a lot of stakes. It has upgraded its Look East policy into an ambitious Act East policy. However to realise the dream of emerging as a major player in the region India needs to equip itself in a big way.
India’s blue water navy is in a pathetic condition. A lot of up-gradation of vessels, equipment and skills is needed for it to progress in the direction of its ambition. The other power in the region, China, has assiduously built up its maritime capacity in the last decade or so. Once a great maritime power the country had lost its primacy after 16th century due to some archaic thinking of its rulers. However it has made an impressive comeback in the last two decades giving sleepless nights to other maritime powers like Japan and the US.
India and the US have been cooperating on the naval front for a long time. According to one estimate the two countries undertake close to fifty joint exercises in a year meaning a joint exercise every week. Of late a trilateral exercise partnering India, Japan and US too has been initiated. India expects greater cooperation in this area with the US in the coming years.
India under Prime Minister Modi wants to play a greater role in the world affairs. Usually the discussion on India’s global role is always linked to the permanent membership in the UN Security Council. India’s legitimate right to secure a place in UNSC is undisputed. But as a rising economic power India can aspire for a role in several other multilateral bodies like Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) etc. President Obama recognises that India deserves a place of prominence in these bodies. India expects the US to help it secure that place.
Prime Minister Modi has shown extraordinary skill and determination in uplifting Indo-US relations to a next higher level. It is US’s turn to show that they too are committed to it. Most important challenge in the relations is to uplift India from the usual hyphenation with Pakistan or China. Looking at US’ relations with India from the prism of Pakistan and China has been the nemesis of the relations in all these years. President Obama should be prepared to walk that extra mile in order to exploit the great potential the relationship offers to both the countries.
Ram Madhav Varanasi is the General Secretary of Bhartiya Janata Party and the Director of India Foundation. The views expressed are his own.