Expectations from Obama’s India Visit

January 24, 2015
Expectations from Obama’s India Visit
Namrata Goswami
Namrata Goswami Guest Blogger

Obama is coming to take part in India’s Republic Day Parade on 26 January 2015, the first for a U.S. President. And as some believe it to be, it was a coup Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi crafted, engineered, and implemented on his own visit to the United States in September last year, when he met Obama, interacted with the Indian-American community, and to the surprise of everyone, penned a joint op-ed in the Washington Post in which both defined the U.S-India relationship as a defining partnership inspired by the visions of Swami Vivekanda, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Henry David Thoreau. It is rather prophetic that in that op-ed, both leaders championed for space exploration and jointly setting the ambitions for humanity for outer space matters. Indeed, that aspect will be starkly felt on 26 January when a large asteroid called 2004 BL86, and about 0.5 kilometres long, will pass very close to earth as per NASA. Hence, ‘planetary defence’ against such asteroids falling to earth should form part of the leader’s joint endeavour to work together.

Human dignity, freedom and enhanced means of livelihood are repeated statements of hope, both by Obama (his State of Union Address on January 20) reinstated that, and Modi’s as well, with the “India first” policy taking centre stage. Modi’s “India first” policy entails that India, who will have the youngest population in the world by 2025 have no other option but to develop local industry, manufacturing, and vocations if its citizens can aspire for a better life. What the “India first” policy also invokes is a “Make in India” policy where joint investment ventures would mandatorily have a “Make in India’ clause. For instance, it appears that U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, in his visit to India recently was unhappy with India’s announcement of a series of 1,000MW “grid-connected solar PV power projects” that has a “mandatory condition that all PV cells and modules used in solar plants set up under this scheme will be made in India” (The Hindu, Jan 19, 2015). There are differences that have crept up with regard to one of the major items on the Obama agenda, that of solar. For instance, again according to media reports, the U.S. had complained against India’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission’s requirement of domestic content at the WTO and India’s domestic solar industry has accused the US of dumping outdated solar technology on India.

While it may be true that India’s “Make in India” clause may cause apprehension for U.S. investors, it appears that Obama and Modi seems fated to ensure cooperation and working through obstacles on seven important ideas:-renewables; tackling climate change; defence cooperation; counter-terrorism; nuclear; education; visions for the future. Let me explain why these seven items are important to both and highlight some of the speed breakers if not road blocks ahead.

First, renewables. U.S and India are two large economies with enormous growth potential. Modi’s dream is to develop India, develop its cities, its towns, its villages from infrastructure, to sanitation, health, electricity, etc. For enabling this, he needs help and the U.S can help. Given India’s growing thrust for energy with increase in consumption patterns, the move to invest in renewables like wind and solar is wise and will see benefits for both in the near future.

Second, investing in renewables, which is clean and sustainable has a direct impact on the second agenda, climate change. There are arguments that carbon emissions are the guiltiest parties in this earth game. Hence, limiting it matters and if two of the world’s powerful democratic leaders can manage it, it’s good for the world.

Third, defence cooperation. There were rumours that the U.S. was left unhappy when the US $ 13 billion deal for Multi Medium Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for 126 aircrafts went to Dassault Rafale of France. However, India is planning to procure much more in the next 10 years with money to spend and the U.S. can benefit from defence cooperation. The U.S. and India will also renew their 2004 Defence Framework Agreement due for renewal this year. This includes high technology initiatives, joint production, etc. and feasibility of technology transfer. However, while all this sounds wonderful on paper, there are some major weaknesses. For instance, while the defence relationship is getting better, it is still limited to mainly defence sales. Beyond that, there is little joint operability between U.S. and Indian forces. For instance, if both countries have to respond to disasters or a major break down of peace in a third country, they are ill prepared to carry out a joint operation together.

Moreover, both countries do not enjoy meaningful strategic conversations on what the future strategic threats are; neither do they game out what could be possible joint interventions feasible to make the world more peaceful; hence, while there are defence exercises, whether the mapping of conflict zones are similar or whether either consults the other at high levels of strategic planning to craft a strategic map remains an enigma. There are multiple op-eds on how the relationship is robust and hopes expressed galore on how U.S.-India interests converge but my suspicion is that while this is great for diplomatic broadcasting, it matters whether they are meaningfully implanting these ideas across different agencies dealing with defence issues.

Fourth: counter-terrorism. The most important aspect of counter-terrorism is intelligence sharing. We now know that there was intelligence available with British, U.S. and Indian intelligence agencies before the attacks of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) on Mumbai on 26 November 2008 of the LeT mapping out Mumbai targets, but all three failed to connect the dots and create a joint picture. Most intelligence sharing, ironically, occurred post-Mumbai attacks. Hence, while identifying counter-intelligence, it is important to realize that institutional structures have to be in place on the ground with sophisticated joint tools for common assessment of intelligence and the intelligence feedback loop. Thereby, some joint training for intelligence is itself a good starting point.

Fifth, nuclear. While the U.S.-India nuclear agreement of 2005 and 2008 were symbolically excellent for uplifting India’s nuclear status per se, the implementation of the deal has run into rough weather due to the Indian Civil Nuclear Liability Act of 2010 which fixes liability for nuclear damage on the operator and the operator then has a ‘right to recourse’ if the nuclear accident is consequently connected to material or equipment supplied by the original supplier or his employee. This has resulted in a lock-jam as U.S. nuclear suppliers do not see advantage in signing such a consequential agreement. How this matter is resolved remains tricky but if it does, it will be a real win for Obama and Modi.

Sixth, education. India really benefits from U.S. educational system. There are 1,34,292 Indian students in the U.S., of which 65 per cent are in the field of science, IT and engineering. Yet, Modi has to work hard to kick start India’s own education sector if he dreams of uplifting India’s billions. This is only possible by providing top quality education in India. In this, the U.S. can be a great asset. Hence, attracting U.S. universities to open campuses in India by offering land, liberal tax structures and visas, and by offering lucrative benefits for educators from abroad to come teach in India. The Fulbright-Nehru Scholarship is not enough. India needs to generate much more resources so that students from all sectors of its society can hope to better themselves through highly efficient and effective education practices, something the country sorely misses still.

Seventh, visions for the future. Relationships between states are determined, not just by the similarity of their political systems and historical experiences. They are determined by the willingness of both sides to come together, their geo-political reality, ideological moorings, power equations, social connections and the level of cultural comfort. Quite notably, the U.S. and India have enjoyed a convergence on many of these aspects historically. For instance, given India’s non-violent struggle against British colonialism, and the US’s own experience with its War of Independence against British colonialism, both countries should have hit it off from the start. Both countries at the time of Indian independence in 1947 espoused similar political values; namely, democracy, individual liberties, free press, electorates, support for international organizations, and hope in human progress. Ironically, despite these compelling similarities, the two countries were fantastically dissimilar when it came to power equations and ideological moorings. At the end of the Second World War, the United States emerged as one of the world’s super-powers; India became independent at that time as one of the poorest countries in the world. In the beginning years of independence, India depended on US food aid, in the form of PL 480, to feed its population. The United States viewed India as a poor country with little hope for the future. US policymakers at that time, therefore, could not understand the aspirations of Indian leaders like its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to be a world leader with ideas for world peace when the people within India were dying from poverty and malnutrition. The other factor that drove a wedge between the two countries was the ideological moorings of the Cold War. Nehru was adamant that India should not be forced to side with either super-power, be it the United States or the Soviet Union, or get entangled in the cold war rivalry. Consequently, he was instrumental in forming the non-aligned bloc of nations whose chief goal was to stay out of super-power rivalry and formulate a common foreign policy agenda of their own, and it worked. During the time the non-alignment movement was being formed, the United States was looking for allies in Asia to counter the spread and influence of the Soviet Union, and India with its commitment to non-alignment was not an attractive option, whereas its rival and neighbor, Pakistan was. And hence was formed the US-Pakistan cold war alliance which in turn created more distance between the United States and India up until the end of the Cold War. It is only after the end of the Cold War when India embarked on its 1991 economic reforms that the country felt a growing need to reach out to the world for innovation, technology and talent sharing. This change created the compelling logic for a more refined and closer US-India relationship.

However, while societal connections are deep and far reaching, there are differences in attitudes, culture, ambitions and visions. India is wary of interventions in other countries’ internal affairs; the U.S. has waged several wars and intervened in other countries for its foreign policy goals. Sometimes, India’s non-committal attitude towards global affairs has irked Americans leading to accusations that India has no strategic culture or an idea of what it wants to contribute to the world. Indian bureaucrats have complained about American heavy handedness on issues always trying to decide for everyone. I take a clue from Barack Obama’s latest ‘State of Union’ address where he emphatically stated what makes United States unique is its capability and wisdom to accept difference. Perhaps, the same framework can be used for differences between India and the U.S. What makes this relationship unique is that while there are several differences, there are several possibilities of meaningful cooperation.

Dr. Namrata Goswami is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views presented here are her own.