Obama in India


India and the US are forging a close partnership, helped in great measure by the personal bonding between Narendra Modi and Barack Obama, write RANJANA NARAYAN and ARUN KUMAR

 US President Barack Obama, accompanied by wife Michelle, wound up three days of packed diplomatic and public engagements, his state visit – where he was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade – has been termed as paving the way for a “new era” in India-US relations.

US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the signal being sent from Obama and Modi to their own respective governments “is going to catalyse a lot of activity”.

“It also sends a message to the world, I think, that the US and India are going to be closer partners going forward,” he said. “And that’s entirely consistent with the president’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region and building closer relations with emerging powers, particularly the world’s largest democracy here in India.”

Modi and Obama, who held over three-hour long talks within hours of Obama touching down in New Delhi, announced the much-anticipated breakthrough agreement on implementation of their landmark civil nuclear deal, six years after it was signed.

That the two leaders had played a major part in getting the nuclear contact group to tide over their disagreements was indicated by former Indian Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, who said the “political leadership played a key role” in pushing forward the agreement for setting up US-built civil nuclear reactors in India.

“I would characterise this as a very successful visit, and also a reflection of PM Modi’s ability to bring about a definitive change in the bilateral relationship in a very short time from September 2014 to now. On the nuclear issue, the way the roadblocks have been removed, it came about after Modi came into the chair and brought in the problem-solving mechanism into the relationship. The fact that he was able to infuse the political direction and energy has made all the difference,” noted strategic expert C. Uday Bhaskar told IANS.

India and the US have also agreed to work closely in the Asia-Pacific region, bringing together India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and the US’s re-balance to Asia.

Obama and Modi had “turned a corner for the United States and India” by resolving “issues in a long-stalled nuclear deal that for years kept US nuclear power companies from doing business in India”, noted Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Obama, coming out of this symbolic and important visit to India, should demonstrate that Washington will do its part for India’s future by integrating India into economic regimes focused on delivering growth,” she wrote in a commentary in Fortune.

Along with energy cooperation also came defence cooperation in what is seen by analysts as a strategic shift in emphasis. The US, which has also watched the growing closeness between India and Russia in the co-production of weaponry and armaments, will now become a key co-producer of select defence equipment with India.

The two sides renewed the 10-year Defence Framework Agreement for enhanced defence engagement, and also inked the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), under which the two sides have agreed on co-production on four projects. These include the Raven unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), and the “roll-on, roll-off” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance module for the Lockheed Martin-manufactured C-130 J transport aircraft.

The two leaders also gave a big push to the economic partnership, by meeting CEOs from both sides during two back-to-back meetings. Obama announced $4 billion worth of new initiatives aimed at boosting trade and investment ties as well as jobs in India.

The camaraderie between Modi and Obama, built up over their past three meetings, including Modi’s US visit in September, led to several photo-op moments of bear hugs, “Chai pe Charcha” talks over tea without aides, a walk in the elegant garden of Hyderabad House, chatting warmly like old friends during the Republic Day parade, and also their first name references of “Barack” and “Modi”.

On 26 January, Obama accompanied by Michelle, was chief guest at India’s 66th Republic Day parade, during which he was given a glimpse of India’s military might, cultural diversity and technological prowess.

After the two-hour open air affair, the US first couple later also attended President Pranab Mukherjee’s traditional At Home reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

In his final engagement, the following day Obama addressed a town hall-like gathering at Siri Fort Auditorium, where he said that he firmly believes that America can be India’s “best partner” and together the two countries can bring about more prosperity to their people and set examples for the world.

Modi and Obama also spoke on radio, in a joint ‘Mann ki Baat’ radio address, talking about their humble origins, their inspirations, women empowerment and youth and values shared by two of world’s largest democracies.

The programme, which was pre-recorded, amply reflected the personal warmth and admiration of two leaders for each other and their common view on some problems.

Taking a veiled dig at China and some other countries seen to regulate information flow through the internet, Obama said he had much greater faith in open societies in their ability to succeed and thrive in the new information age than the “closed societies” which try to control information that citizens receive.

No hard questions relating to politics or economy were taken up, though queries came from people in different parts of the country.

Obama, who spoke of the two countries being natural partners, added a personal touch, saying that he would bring his two daughters to India even if it happens after his presidency. He said his daughters are fascinated by India but have not been able to come on his two visits to the country due to their examinations.

“So when I go back I am going to tell them that India is as magnificent as they imagined,” Obama said.

Modi said when he took a photograph outside White House in his younger days, he could never imagine he would get to see the building from inside. Referring to his visit to the White House in September last year, Modi said Obama gave him a book of speeches delivered at the World Religions Conference in Chicago. Swami Vivekananda, who delivered a famous speech at the conference, was “the inspiration” of his life, he said.

Obama said he too never imagined he would be occupying White House the first time he visited the building.

“The notion that a tea seller or somebody who’s born to a single mother like me, could end up leading our countries, is an extraordinary example of the opportunities that exist within our countries,” he said.

Obama revealed though there were days when it is tough and frustrating, he gets succour from change he is able to make in people’s lives.

“If you are helping somebody, the expectation you get from that is exceeds anything else you can do,” he said.

Asked about the American leader who inspired him the most, Modi named Benjamin Franklin, one of the country’s founding fathers.

He also revealed that the hospitality he received at a house of a poor person who could not afford milk for his son inspired him to devote his life to the service of the poor.

On the need of changing attitude towards the girl child to improve India’s sex ratio, he termed Obama an inspiration, referring to the way he brought up his two daughters.

Modi said there will be an e-book of their talk and invited thoughts, through various modes of social media, promising the best 100 will find a place in the book.