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Kishan S Rana & Hemant Krishan Singh: Evaluating Barack Obama's landmark visit

Two former Indian diplomats provide two different viewpoints on how the president's recent official trip moved India-US relations forward

Kishan S Rana & Hemant Krishan Singh 

Kishan S Rana & Hemant Krishan Singh

A visit that enshrined diplomacy as spectacle…

Walter Bagehot wrote in The English Constitution: "An ambassador is not simply an agent; he is also a spectacle." That applies in spades to leaders when they essay abroad, as the president of the United States, Barack Obama, showed on his visit to India last weekend. Let us explore this public dimension of this path-breaking journey by the US President - a journey whose substantive results are still to be fully decoded.

Consider the salient elements of the visit.

One: In three days, Mr Obama spoke to the Indian people on five occasions (press statements and speeches at the Rashtrapati Bhavan banquet; the speech to businessmen, the town hall speech at Siri Fort, and the Mann ki Baat radio programme); this is intensive public diplomacy.

Two: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's panache, and a speaking style that connects so easily with his audience; the grandeur and precision, and the multi-dimensional military-plus-people blend that flavours the R-Day parade; and, indeed, all the events taken together, burnished the 'India Brand' as never before, and took it to a global audience. The walk in the gardens of stately Hyderabad House gardens and the private tea-for-two demonstrated in its own way the comfortable dealings between these two leaders, unbound from the tyranny of their handlers. Was this also marketing of the "Modi brand"? Probably. Our PM and his political party will surely gain political mileage - but these are the attributes of incumbency. Such gains come through traversing risk as well. Imagine, if an accord had not been reached on the framework to operationalise the 2008 civil nuclear deal, or if the other 'takeaways' from the visit, like the extension of the 10-year defence cooperation plus the new 'Defence Trade and Technology Initiative', had not emerged, the brand-building would have been hollow. Credible brands march in lockstep with reality.

Three: The posthumous Ashok Chakra awards to the widows of two brave soldiers recognised the danger and sacrifice that our armed forces confront from terrorists. That ceremony, another R-Day staple, conveyed a message to the US president - more eloquently than any overt official statement might have - of the state sponsorship and 'terrorism diplomacy' practiced by our neighbour Pakistan.

Four: That 40-minute Mann ki Baat radio broadcast on the night of January 27 evoked a thought: in how many major countries outside the West might a US president find it appropriate and feasible to join a foreign leaderat such a joint broadcast? That it reached such a humongous Indian audience was of course another key public diplomacy gesture for both sides. President Obama's town hall meeting that same morning was interesting on many counts: his evocation of Indian icons, movie dialogue, and snippets in Hindi, showed a deft touch; he struck many right chords with a principally young audience, speaking also of the bilateral education connection, which won him loud applause; his mingling with the crowd after his speech, all armed with smartphones, would have been anathema to Indian securitymen - it was just as well that this event seemed to be handled principally by the Americans.

Five: Kudos to Mr Modi's speechwriters for evoking Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) in his speech to businessmen. Gandhiji acknowledged Thoreau's monograph Resistance to Civil Government (protesting a poll tax that Thoreau deemed illegitimate), as one of the precursors to his doctrine of passive resistance. But the India-US 'dialogue of the centuries' goes much further back. In Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) Thoreau wrote: 'In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial…' As Mr Modi suggested, Gandhiji and Martin Luther King are legatees of this heritage of mutual intellectual interaction; this connection is unique between India and the US. The Indian PM told businessmen in his speech at the diwan-e-aam-style gathering that he would direct the PMO to monitor major projects; he was evidently responding to a suggestion made at the select diwan-e-khaas-style meeting that had preceded it. President Obama's announcement of an 'India Diaspora Initiative' is a 'smart' way to match our outreach to Indian-Americans, linking it with action from Washington DC that also mobilises this diaspora as bilateral connectors between the two countries.

All this convergence notwithstanding, we know well that significant India-US differences persist. On climate change, President Obama referred to India's equity doctrine (without mentioning 'equal but differentiated responsibilities'), but went on to say: 'Here's the fact...' - that, without India's participation, climate change cannot be managed. The US position on intellectual property rights (IPR) issues remains equally unrelenting from an Indian perspective. That also holds for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean vision held out by the two countries. Yes, if the US helps India join APEC that would be a real gain, but we do not know that for sure. Security Council membership is a chimera, despite US support, for the simple reason that the needed international consensus for action is as far as it has always been. Much as closer ties with the US and practical outcomes are welcome, our doctrine of strategic autonomy remains our lodestar. Not for us a tilt in favour of any global power. Only a resurgence of Indian manufacturing capacity and vast improvement in infrastructure will create the base for stronger Indian domestic and foreign policy. That is our essential truth.

In less than two years, the Obamas will, relatively youthful, join the ranks of former leaders, and pursue their own tracks. We can count on them as public citizens to continue their India engagement, as Barak Obama told his radio audience.

Kishan S Rana, a former ambassador, is at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi

...and brought an end to strategic ambiguity

Beyond the hype and rhetoric which normally accompanies such high-profile events, the unprecedented second visit to India by the president of the United States, Barack Obama, delivered far more than the resounding symbolism of his presence at India's Republic Day.

By establishing a privileged India-US strategic partnership at the apex of India's foreign policy priorities, the visit essentially completed the "Modi-fied" framework to advance India's national interests which has been steadily emerging in recent months.

Guided by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision and energy, India has finally transitioned from the inertia of strategic ambiguity to embrace strategic ambition and relevance. It is no longer non-aligned or even, as some have suggested, multi-aligned. Instead, India's external engagement is now firmly rooted in its long-term economic and security interests and the indispensable partnerships which enable India's rise.

The focus must now rapidly shift towards operationalising this new strategy, for which the appointment of S Jaishankar, the dynamic new foreign secretary, augurs well.

From a domestic lens, it is evident that an Indian government with a stable majority in the Lok Sabha enjoys greater political space to move beyond constricting ideologies of the past and craft a bold new course in tune with contemporary challenges. This factor, and the restoration of India's credibility under PM Modi's decisive leadership, has also prompted the US to scale up its political investment in India's rise. For Mr Obama, who is already on the last leg of his second term, cementing a strengthened relationship with India helps build a positive foreign policy legacy.

The three documents released following the Modi-Obama summit - Joint Strategic Vision, Declaration of Friendship and the Joint Statement - codify an upgraded partnership in which natural affinity and shared universal values are complemented by convergent strategic interests and joint actions.

The Vision document outlines a shared regional security doctrine and draws India firmly within "broader Asia", bridging the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean regions and defining common objectives on regional norms and security architecture. The welcome extended by the US to India's interest in joining APEC marks a significant advance. Conceptually, India's Act East Policy and the US re-balance to Asia have moved closer.

The India-US Delhi Declaration of Friendship elevates the strategic partnership and proclaims a much higher level of trust and coordination among the two nations. Unlike the now-defunct Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship of 1971, the India-US Declaration does not contain the principle of collective response to threats. Instead, the Declaration merely enunciates shared national principles and mutual commitments. There is no adverse implication for any third party.

The Joint Statement defines an extensive bilateral agenda, covering economic, defence and security, regional and global issues. The US commitment to partner with India on its development priorities is a welcome change from the contentious disputes over India's trade and investment policies which have marked the bilateral discourse in 2013-14. The operationalisation of the India-US civil nuclear deal reflects a new approach towards the resolution of complex issues. However, progress on a Bilateral Investment Treaty, or a Totalisation Agreement, or indeed constructive engagement on IPR issues, will not be easy. Nor will mutual accommodation on climate change leading up to the Paris Conference at the end of this year, despite the pragmatic stance signalled by PM Modi. India on its part has much work to do on creating an open and predictable climate for investment. Furthermore, there is insufficient recognition of the interlinkages between trade and investment. This must be remedied before India finds itself isolated and marginalised between the competing streams of high quality regional trade agreements under negotiation, RCEP and TPP.

Defence and homeland security cooperation is another component of the enhanced India-US strategic partnership. Apart from the announcement of an expanded 2015 Framework for the US-India Defence Relationship, concrete progress on the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) and a US commitment to help India establish a defence industrial base are of vital importance. If India is to effectively partner with the US (and Japan) on maritime security issues, its military capability, specifically the operational capacity of the Indian Navy, must be bolstered. In this context, the decision to explore cooperation on aircraft carrier technology sharing and design, as well as jet engine technology, is a welcome development.

Endorsement of the role of the leaders-led East Asia Summit (EAS) process in promoting open, balanced and inclusive security architecture in the region, as well as the possible upgradation of the India-US-Japan Trilateral Dialogue, are further to be welcomed. However, the absence of a road map for collaboration to address Af-Pak challenges, particularly Taliban efforts to destabilise Afghanistan, if left unaddressed, can constrain wider security cooperation.

Since September 2014, PM Modi has been successful in forging shared values and common interests driven special partnerships with the US, Japan and Australia to underpin continued regional prosperity and stability. The objective appears to be to create a strategic environment that discourages unilateral assertions, promotes balanced regional institutions for the socialisation of security issues and upholds the observance of established international norms.

The upgraded India-US strategic partnership serves the fundamental economic and security interests of both countries and has the capacity to positively impact the balance of power across the Indo-Pacific to their mutual advantage, and that of their like-minded partners. However, the importance of following through on the mutual responsibilities assumed and the reciprocal commitments undertaken by both India and the US will determine whether this rekindled "natural" partnership will blossom into a "best" partnership.

Hemant Krishan Singh, a former ambassador, is now at ICRIER, New Delhi. This piece was written with Sanjay Pulipaka, also at ICRIER

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First Published: Sat, January 31 2015. 21:50 IST