Obama's India Visit

As the countdown begins for United States President Barack Obama's first state visit to India in November, there is considerable anticipation in New Delhi about how this chapter in the Indo-US bilateral relationship will play out.

Will the President, as many hope, extend his support for India's long-cherished dream for a seat at the United Nations Security Council? Will he demonstrate greater sensitivity towards Indian interests in Afghanistan and along the troubled Pakistani border? How will the two nations balance out the intricacies of the India-US-China equation to contain the China's growing regional presence?

The US, meanwhile, is keen to know what India will bring to the table for the relationship to succeed in strategic terms and indeed, what the areas of cooperation are that the two nations can hope to exploit to maintain the salience of their relationship in a rapidly changing world.

These questions have acquired heightened significance given recent developments which have caused anxiety in both camps. The US, for example, has been irritated about the provisions of recently-passed nuclear liability legislation in India. Private American firms that were hoping to invest in India's US$150-billion nuclear energy industry are unhappy with the legislation, which was amended over liability issues in the wake of the leniency shown towards Union Carbide over the Bhopal poison gas tragedy.

The Indian government's decision to drop a controversial clause that seeks to insulate companies against liability in the event of a nuclear accident will now prevent US companies from having a level-playing field, analysts say, because it puts them up against stiff competition from French and Russian companies that enjoy state subsidies.

There is also a lingering concern in Washington that it will need to compromise on global issues on which it doesn't see eye to eye with India, such as climate change, for instance, or non-proliferation and the international trade regime, to name a few.

India, on its part, holds the view that the return of the Democrats has slowed the momentum the Indo-US relationship had achieved during George W. Bush's tenure. These fears were reinforced when Obama talked about the appointment of a "special envoy" on Kashmir, played up China's importance in managing regional and global issues and cranked up his anti-outsourcing rhetoric.

"Even his invitation to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be the first state guest at the White House last November was seen in Delhi as being higher on symbolism than substance," said a foreign ministry source. "What also hurts India is that America's dialogue with it is invariably less global in scope than it is with China, despite the country's enhanced international profile."

Skeptics thus are of the view that India should keep its expectations. Obama's "fast-unraveling presidency, his vehement anti-outsourcing rhetoric and India's failure to come up with a favorable amendment to the nuclear legislation do not augur too well for Indo-US ties at this juncture," said a joint secretary at the Ministry of External Affairs.

As a result, there is little hope the president will use his clout to ease dual-use technology access to India, something the Indian industry urgently seeks. Indeed, it is ironic that following his outsourcing rhetoric, Obama will not even visit Bangalore, a city that is usually on the radar of visiting heads and is home to about every major US technology giant.

However, experts reiterate, one should read between the lines to get the correct picture about Obama. "For instance," said Prateek Kothari, a member of a Delhi-based think tank, "the implementation of the historic civil nuclear initiative was brought to fruition by Obama. He also resisted pressure from within and from Pakistan to seek Indian concessions on Kashmir in order to give teeth to the Af-Pak strategy. In fact, it was Obama's decision to beef up the American military presence in Afghanistan that dealt a blow to US dependence on Pakistan."

Similarly, Kothari pointed out, there is solace to be derived from the fact that Obama categorically stated at the height of the recent Kashmir imbroglio that it is India's internal matter. Washington, he said, has also underscored its commitment to collaborate with India on counter-terror cooperation by giving India access to David Coleman Headley, the accused accomplice in the Mumbai terror attacks who is currently in American custody.

Given this backdrop, Obama's visit could not only help clear cobwebs of misunderstandings but also help the two sides define the parameters of a more global, and thus more strategic, US-India partnership. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, Obama is attaching "immense importance" to his India visit and his administration has fleshed out an "ambitious agenda" to take bilateral relations to the next level.

"Washington now sees cooperation with India on various fronts as critical, be it addressing the challenges of an unraveling Pakistani state, containing the looming Chinese presence to maintain stability in Asia, reforming the United Nations or cooperating on the terror front," an MEA source said.

As National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, who was in Washington last week, also told reporters, "In today's international situation, India-U.S. relations are an important factor for world peace, stability and progress. An open, balanced and inclusive security architecture in Asia and the world would be a goal that is in our common interest." Even Undersecretary of State William Burns earlier stated that the US has an "enormous stake" in "India's rise as a global power".

For instance, experts point out that China's increasing aggression on the subcontinent provides an opportunity for the two to cobble together a strategy which engages the Asian superpower while simultaneously furthering Indo-US interests. However, for a resurgent India, the question should no longer be how to "shrink" China's role in Asia, but how to expand its own footprint.

"India and the United States should try and establish a long-term framework of strategic interests. As a result of consistent efforts by successive governments and administrations in both countries, our bilateral strategic partnership is strong. The time has come to realize its international significance," Menon concluded.

Another vital area for initiatives is economy and trade. India, with its demographic dividend of a billion-plus population, today offers an attractive opportunity to US companies. It can thus also play a catalytic role in improving the international competitiveness of US companies.

"The dynamic growth of the Indian economy and its enhanced importance to the United States as a strategic trade partner means that forging solid connections between India and America can open up lucrative markets to American companies and support job creation within the United States," said Anil Saxena, the chief executive officer of Infiniti Power Pte Ltd.

Indeed for Obama and Singh, the test in November will not be how many treaties and MOUs they sign or how many contracts American companies are able to stuff into their bags. The real test for the two will be whether they can leverage shared interests to formulate policies that can work to mutual advantage in a rapidly changing Asia and the world.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist; neetalal@hotmail.com