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Obama and Modi – Adding thrust to Indo-US relationship

Obama and Narendra Modi have a unique opportunity to take Indo-US relations to the next level which they should not scuttle.

Updated: Jan 25, 2015, 03:24 AM IST

Ever since the United States rolled out the red carpet for Narendra Modi in Washington and President Barack Obama made a surprise personal gesture of accompanying the Prime Minister to Martin Luther King Jr memorial, the days of Modi being a persona non grata were forgotten and given a quiet burial.

The credit for this goes first to Modi, who showed that he would not let personal belittlement come in the way of very significant bilateral relations between the world’s oldest and largest democracies. He was the first to seize the moment and accept an invitation to visit the US when Obama called to congratulate him on winning an unprecedented mandate in May 2014 general elections.

Now, Modi is returning the favour by extending to the US President a historic invitation to India’s Republic Day programme.

But much has gone into the change of heart between the two nations. From a period when India was on the ‘other side’ of the Cold War, to the time that United States clamped sanctions on India for conducting nuclear tests, the world is a different place.

The United States is the sole superpower of the world, but not in the conventional sense any more. Economically, there is China that can counterbalance it; in terms of challenges – the threat does not come from any once country or bloc but an ideology that breeds terrorism in a loose unstructured way.

In such a scenario, military muscle is clearly not enough. Humility to accept ideas, forge understandings and sharing of Intelligence become imperative. And thus, the closer the ideologies of open societies and democracies there are, and fewer the areas of conflict, the stronger are the bonds likely to be between countries. And this is exactly what defines the strengthening chord between the United States and India.

Strategically, India is the best option in South Asia to offset China; and a tie-up with India along with Australia and Japan completes the US cycle of friendship in the Asia-Pacific region.

India is also the United States’ best hope in a very hostile neighbourhood. With harsh realities in the Middle East, unstable Afghanistan, highly toxic Pakistan and only a fledgling democracy in Myanmar, Washington has no choice but to look to India for partnership.

Economically, besides the United States and China, India is among the only handful of countries with economies of significant scale that are performing well and have potential to continue to expand substantially.

As per data compiled by Director of The India Project at Brookings Institution, US is already the largest trading partner of India, but America's volume of trade with China is five times more, which opens up enormous opportunities. Significantly, India is the 8th fastest growing source of foreign direct investment in the US.

During his visit, Obama would want some sort understanding to emerge on Bilateral Investment Treaty and Intellectual Property Rights, while India wants ‘visa on arrival’ to be implemented on both sides, if certain parameters are met, besides a liberal visa regime for Indians tech workers in the US.

One of the most important avenues for the United States – Defence Trade – has shown remarkable growth. Brookings Institution data shows that between 1999 and 2003, the US was the 14th largest source of defence material and equipment to India, with only a 0.2% share of the total defence deals pie. Between 2009 and 2013, the US had climbed to second position, with 7.4% of the total defence trade.

This is an area that is set to grow further as the two countries seek to sign a new strategic framework and enhance defence cooperation.

In the same line, Indo-US nuke agreement needs to be implemented, which has been stalled since the UPA II era over India’s supplier liability law. As per a newspaper report, two new proposals are on the table that could help end the impasse.

On climate change front, the United States seeks to thrash out an understanding with India that has been bone of contention so far besides exploring avenues of spreading use of renewable energy. The pressure would be on India now that China has agreed to limit the growth in its emissions by 2030.

One of the most important areas of cooperation would be counter terrorism, and signals are already being sent to Pakistan to keep its nefarious elements in check. Post the Paris terrorist attacks, the western world is more keenly aware of the threat posed by Islamists, particularly the freelance variety that are trapped through propaganda on social media by terrorist organisations. In such a scenario, cyber security and surveillance would be on top of the to-do-list.

Besides, both the countries have significant soft power. The US is sending in the most tourists to India, overtaking the United Kingdom while reverse tourism from India to the US had grown 8 times between 1993 and 2013. The largest chunk of NRIs – that’s over 9.2% of the total population is based in America, contributing 17.2% of the total remittance, the Brookings Institution data shows.

And though PIO and NRIs comprise just 1% of the total US population – they are highly educated and have a household income which is double that of the average national average.

Obama is not unaware of this reality and has done his bit during his presidency to promote Indian Americans in top posts.

When Barack Obama sets foot in India to attend the 26th January function, he will be the first US President to do so. He will also be the only President to have visited India twice during his tenure. Indeed, both are significant and powerful symbolisms.

Both he and Modi would be joining for a radio session ‘Mann Ki Baat’ in the same vein as their penning a joint editorial for the Washington Post.

The intention is well meant and the ‘heart of the relationship’ seems to be in the right place, what remains to be seen whether the two leaders will be able to add real sparkle to an association that has in the past been marked by dowie spells, or stour over issues like the Khobragade case.