A new symphony in play

WION New Delhi, India Jan 06, 2017, 11.06 AM(IST) Written By: Ramesh Ramachandran

An indication of the deepening strategic ties between India and the US can be had from Obama's description of the bilateral relationship as 'one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century'. Photograph:( AFP )

"It's a tax code that says you should pay lower taxes if you create a job in Bangalore, India, than if you create one in Buffalo, New York.” That was Barack Obama for you in May 2009. 'Say no to Bangalore and yes to Buffalo,' or so went the slogan at the time, intended to discourage outsourcing of jobs away from American cities such as Buffalo to Bengaluru, formerly Bangalore, in India. But, by the end of October of the same year, Obama, the first Black president in the history of the United States, had already become the first American president ever to personally celebrate Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, at the White House.

For an American president whose two consecutive terms in office straddled two governments in India, one led by Manmohan Singh and the other by Narendra Modi, Obama struck a rapport with both the Indian leaders. He held the elderly Manmohan Singh in respect for his sagacity and economic insights while he considered the relatively younger Narendra Modi as a good friend, to quote White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz. This, for someone, who, until then, had remained persona non grata for successive American administrations. And Modi reciprocated in equal measure, investing in personalised diplomacy with Obama, and meeting him on at least eight occasions since he came to power in India in 2014. Commentators couldn't stop gushing about a bromance when Obama visited India as the chief guest for India's 66th Republic Day celebrations; Modi dropped all honorifics to refer to Obama as Barack.

Obama's wooing of India, and Indians, continued through his presidency, except on occasions when he got on the wrong side of India. For instance, barely a few weeks after celebrating Diwali at the White House, Obama visited China where he agreed to a joint statement which read, "... two sides welcomed all efforts conducive to peace, stability and development in South Asia. They support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan." It was a red rag for New Delhi, which opposed the implicit recognition of China as a regional hegemon or a Group of Two (G2) comprising the US and China.

That was not all. Before his China visit, Obama became the first US president not to welcome Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel laureate the Dalai Lama to the White House, in deference to his Chinese hosts. But the bonhomie would diminish soon, as subsequent developments suggest, including Obama's pivot, which was subsequently renamed as rebalance, to Asia and the Hague verdict on the South China Sea. And, to boot, Obama hosted the Dalai Lama on at least four occasions at the White House, most recently in June 2016, drawing vehement protests from Beijing. The Americans defended it by saying that the Dalai Lama was received for a personal meeting with Obama in the Map Room of the White House, and not the Oval Office, which generally is reserved for heads of state or government.

In fact, even before he was sworn in as the 44th president of the US in January 2009, Obama raised New Delhi's hackles by talking about Kashmir and how he wanted to appoint someone such as former US president Bill Clinton to mediate between India and Pakistan. India also vociferously protested any move by the US to appoint a special envoy for the India-Pakistan-Afghanistan region. Obama has the distinction of introducing Af-Pak into the lexicon, when he appointed the late Richard Holbrooke as the first special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. 

The "breakthrough understanding" reached between Obama and Modi was another milestone in India-US relations under Obama. It accelerated the process of allowing nuclear contracts to be signed between US firms and India. This, in spite of the fact that Obama, when he was a Senator, had raised potential non-proliferation consequences of this deal and pushed two amendments that changed the terms of the agreement.

An indication of the deepening strategic ties between India and the US can be had from Obama's description of the bilateral relationship as "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century". And it manifested itself in Obama's becoming the first US president to visit India twice while in office. Towards the end of his second term, Obama approved a legislation that designated India as a "major defence partner", a definition the US has not used for any other country.

Modi best summed up the blossoming of the India-US relations under Obama when he told the US Congress, "Today, our relationship has overcome the hesitations of history. Comfort, candour and convergence define our conversations."


Ramesh Ramachandran

I cover the intersection of international relations and politics. Am a recent convert to Bloody Mary and tea, so no single malt or double espresso for me, please.