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The US-India roller coaster has, once again, reached its zenith

January 26, 2015 10:18 IST
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi plays the gracious host, as he prepares a cup of tea for US President Barack Obama at the Hyderabad House. Photograph: Press Information BureauThe new equation between 'Namo' and 'Barack' may well 'convert a good start into lasting progress,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

When Air Force One landed on a foggy Sunday morning in Delhi with POTUS (President of the United States) and FLOTUS (First Lady Of the United States) on board, a beginning was already made in transforming the India-US relationship symbolically.

By the time the day ended with the banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan, at which Barack Obama praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rise from humble origins and his survival of a crocodile attack in his youth, the contours of a 'natural global partnership' between the two countries were already visible in the horizon.

Much remains to be worked out and the devil may rise from the details, but the roller coaster has, once again, reached its zenith.

It is a new beginning, but very much a continuum of an older vision. All said and done, Manmohan Singh may well have the last laugh, as he is the author of the script that Modi and Obama followed.

The nuclear deal, opposed at one time by the Bharatiya Janata Party, once again became the centerpiece of a new relationship and its operationalisation became the biggest accomplishment of the visit.

Even after a way has been found to get around the liability law, no nuclear trade may take place on account of the remaining hurdles in setting up the insurance pool and fulfilling the requirements of the export control regime of the US government, the courage shown by the Modi government has become symbolic of the new spirit.

The greatest criticism of the new dispensation came from the leftist parties. Modi, however, is fairly confident that he will swing the changes through Parliament. The merit of the 'dilution' of the liability law is that we will not be in contravention of international law anymore and that we will not be accused of reneging on the commitment given to the US to buy nuclear material from them.

The change will benefit Russia and France rather than the US in the immediate future. The US agreement on waiving the end user regulation is not a major concession, as the new reactors will be under safeguards, though it removes another possible hurdle. In the post-Fukushima world, nuclear trade has lost its sheen around the world.

The biggest outcome of the visit was the personal equation between Modi and Obama, two men who broke the glass ceiling above them and demonstrated the possibilities of the two great democracies.

Obama openly spoke of their humble origins and celebrated the emergence of a decisive Indian leader with a vision. The 'chai pe charcha', which was seen, but not heard, was very much like the walk in the woods of an earlier era and yielded unprecedented results. It is not unusual for personal equations to play a role in forging international relationships.

Defence cooperation, as expected, reached a new level with the agreement on co-designing and co-production of defense equipment, very much in consonance with Modi's 'Make in India,' which is nothing but imported self-reliance.

His vision is to move away from being the biggest importer of arms to the biggest manufacturer and exporter. Defence technology transfer, so far denied to India, appears to be a distinct possibility. The renewal of the defence agreement for another ten years is also significant.

On terrorism, Obama has made significant statements even after US Secretary of State John Kerry had taken care to reassure Pakistan that it would not be abandoned as long as it served US interests in the region, particularly Afghanistan. Sharing of intelligence is also likely to assume new dimensions after the visit.

Obama had a clear agenda on climate change to get India on board on the basis of his understanding with China. Modi cleverly evaded the issue by stating that he was not under any pressure on account of the Chinese position.

The Indian leader said the only pressure on him was his duty to future generations and that he was committed to reaching an agreement in Paris later this year. He signaled massive use of clean and renewable energy as a way to combat climate change.

Trade and commerce will be the highest priority in the transformed relationship with a vision of trade increasing five times in the near future. Many mechanisms are already in place to boost trade and direct investment, the highest priority for the Modi government.

Here, the role of the governments will be only to facilitate private enterprise on both sides and the prospects for further liberalisation are very much on the cards.

Commitment to have frequent summits, establishment of hotlines, reiteration of the support in principle for India's permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, agreement on social security for Indian professionals, investment treaty and such other measures are manifestations of the new goodwill and commitment to the new partnership.

The Joint Statement is a virtual manifesto of a transformed relationship, which emphasises both continuity and change.

Modi more than hinted at the context of the new relationship when he said, 'In particular, we renewed our commitment to deepen our cooperation to advance peace, stability, prosperity in Asia, Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, which is critical for the future of our two countries and the destiny of this world.'

The prime minister sees India as a 'swing State' in the region, seeking its own place as a third power, rather than identify itself with either the US or China. The picture will emerge clearly after Modi's China visit.

The biggest surprise about the developments on the first day of Obama's visit is to those who believed that this was a ceremonial visit by a lame duck President. In fact, US Presidents get bolder as they near the end of their second term and the powers of the President do not disappear with the loss of majority in the House and the Senate.

Obama still has fire in him as he has demonstrated by his decisive actions in the case of ISIS on the one hand and Cuba on the other. The new equation between 'Namo' and 'Barack' may well 'convert a good start into lasting progress.'

T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council, Director General, Kerala International Centre.

Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi plays the gracious host, as he prepares a cup of tea for US President Barack Obama at the Hyderabad House. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

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