Home / Opinion / Modi-Obama redux: five notable accomplishments

For a country obsessed with deliverables, it might be counterintuitive to write about achievements before the Republic Day summit—the second bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US president Barack Obama in less than six months—has even begun in New Delhi. Yet, significant pre-summit developments and deliberations indicate that there are likely to be at least five notable accomplishments from this outing.

First, the symbolism of the leaders of the world’s two biggest democracies celebrating India’s 66th year as a secular, democratic republic is in itself a powerful and compelling narrative. Yet, Republic Day does not hail only India’s soft power; it is also a chest thumping, if somewhat anachronistic, display of its hard power. With the likely display of several American weapons during the parade the message of closer military ties between Washington and New Delhi will not be lost on observers.

Second the confirmation by an otherwise antagonistic US Congress to the Obama administration of a new US ambassador to India with alacrity through a voice vote (even as it holds hostage several other key appointments) indicates the bipartisan support in the US polity to improved relations with India. The rationale for this was best articulated by Republican senator John McCain—an otherwise vociferous opponent of Obama policies—asserting that “India’s rise as a global actor can benefit the US".

Third the appointment of Richard Rahul Verma—the first Indian American—as ambassador of the US to India is indicative of the crucial role that the increasingly influential Indian diaspora is playing not only in the US but also in enhancing relations with India. In fact, many of the key interlocutors in the departments of defence, state, energy and justice dealing with India are also Indian-Americans. While many officials in India find it disconcerting to deal with Indian Americans ably representing Washington’s interests, Prime Minister Modi clearly understands the advantage of engaging with these highly placed Americans of Indian descent as well as the broader Indian disapora. The latter is apparent in his outreach through events such as the one at Madison Square Garden. The former is evident in the appointment of US-based experts, such as economist Arvind Panagariya, to top advisory positions.

Fourth, it is to the credit of the two sides that they have deftly resolved or avoided confrontation on issues that could have wrecked the summit. The bilateral agreement, which paved the way for a Trade Facilitation Agreement at the World Trade Organization is one such example. Another is the effort made by both sides to redress the on going disagreements over intellectual property rights. While this issue has still not been resolved, there are indications that a solution might be hammered out eventually.

Finally, there will be a number of deliverables at the summit. As US secretary of state John Kerry confidently noted the Obama-Modi discussions would broadly focus on four areas: clean energy and climate change, defence cooperation, civil nuclear cooperation and economic partnership. Of these, several agreements are expected on defence cooperation, clean energy and economic ties. While some of these might not go as far as India wants (for example a big-ticket joint production project in defence) they are likely to be more substantial than what the US has agreed to in the past. Perhaps the biggest likely deliverable will be on civil nuclear cooperation, which has stalled for several years.

Clearly, there is much at stake for both leaders and countries and they have already invested a significant amount of political capital. While they have already got substantial returns at the bilateral and multilateral level they need to jointly build on it. For this they will have to manage expectations and also seek to remove domestic hurdles that prevent the cooperation from deepening and widening. The Republic Day summit is a good start for this process.

W.P.S. Sidhu is senior fellow for foreign policy at Brookings Institution, which has just published a briefing book titled The Second Modi Obama Summit: Building the India-US Partnership. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

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