From a visual standpoint, there are few annual events in the world that can match the grandeur and theatricality of a Republic Day parade. A presidential visit to any country carries huge symbolism and is a global news event. Indeed, the last three US presidents’ visits to India were huge media events, with presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama each receiving rock-star treatment.
Beyond Photo Ops
All indications, however, are that Obama’s visit will not be limited to optics and symbolism. Yes, they are extremely useful in the political sphere. Exhibit A was Modi’s Madison Square Garden address, which galvanised Indian Americans. But beyond that there are expectations in Washington that the visit will give a tremendous boost to the India-US relations, with the two leaders set to make progress in a number of areas.
Presidential visits are seldom short on deliverables. The White House, whether it is controlled by a Democrat or a Republican, always makes sure that a president’s foreign trip is more than photo ops and high-profile visits to historical sites. During Obama’s first visit to India in November 2010, he announced a series of business deals worth more than $10 billion at a time when the US economy was still reeling from recession. Addressing the joint session of Parliament, the president had declared his commitment “to make the relationship between our two countries a defining partnership of the century ahead”. So, what will be the deliverables this time around?
To date, both governments have been tight-lipped about the particulars of the visit, including the official schedule. However, speaking in Gandhinagar early this week at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, US secretary of state John Kerry said the Obama-Modi discussions will broadly focus around four areas: climate change, defence, civil nuclear cooperation and economic partnership. A steady stream of reports in the Indian media indicates that there will be a number of deals on the trade and business front. The president is also likely to attend a roundtable with Indian CEOs and an infrastructure summit.
Progress has also been reported on negotiations for an investment treaty that protects intellectual property rights of American businesses, a necessary tool for bringing more US investments to India. Such a treaty would guarantee other legal protection as well. Predictability is one of the conditions US businesses are demanding to transact in India.
While the details of the type of deals the two sides will sign may not be available until Air Force One lands in Delhi, there are great expectations in Washington about the visit. Bilateral relations had stagnated in the last two years of the United Progressive Alliance government, especially because of the then prime minister Manmohan Singh’s inability to advance economic reform.
By the time he left office, Singh had few friends in Washington. American businesses, angry with the PM’s performance, were putting pressure on US congressional leaders to act tough on India. Even those members of Congress who normally jumped to India’s defence found it difficult to justify India in Washington.
While Modi’s victory triggered the thaw in relations, it was his five-day US visit in September 2014 that infused feel-good vibes into this renewed and evolving relationship. The general consensus in the US capital now is that the presidential visit will result in translating the prevailing positive energy into substantive actions.
Stitch in Time
Nonetheless, despite the turnaround, there are still some irritants in relations. The slow pace of reform in India continues to frustrate US. There is a fundamental philosophical difference between the policymakers of the two countries on the issue of intellectual property rights. And there are other problem areas. For example, just after Modi came to power, Washington and New Delhi had a large disagreement at the World Trade Organization over trade subsidies.
But, unlike his predecessor, the current prime minister of India has substantial political capital in Washington, mainly because of his decade-long track record in Gujarat as a business-friendly chief minister.
In addition, US businesses have always seen Modi as a person they could do business with. This impression has not changed during the eight months he has been in power in Delhi. Among those who see the president’s visit an opportunity for the two countries to take this essential relationship to the next level are Howard B Schaffer and Teresita C Schaffer, two of the most respected authorities on India who between them have spent six decades as diplomats in south Asia. “The two governments have more on their ‘to do’ lists than they have staff to do it,” the couple wrote on their blog South Asia Hand after the visit was announced. “They will now have the chance — and the need — to devote substantial time to their important relationship between now and the end of January.”
The stars are aligned; the planets are in the right place. Time, talent and tenacity will tell whether this is sufficient to create a new agenda to take India-US relations to the next level.