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Why India Will Miss President Obama?

Last month, USA granted India the status of a major defence partner[1] although it is still unclear what it entails in terms of the level of technology transfer. However, it was yet another evidence of the fact that the Indo-US relationship is steadily progressing politically. The Obama administration has built up on the relationship throughout the 8 years and it remains to be seen what the incoming Trump administration will make of the current relationship. The India-US relationship changed due to strategic and economic reasons in the 1990s. The 123 was the initial center-piece of the relationship followed by the DTTI and now the major defence partner status. But the most important political speech[2] for the relationship was made by President Obama at Siri fort auditorium during his trip to India.

Here was a US president in nearly 70 years of our independence who spoke directly to the reality of India to the people of India. He invoked liberal and conservative Indian leaders of the past. He invoked the necessity for embracing diversity, eradicating poverty and developing strategic partnership based on common interests and values. He cited evidence from the genuinely natural aspects of the ‘natural relationship’ that is often invoked- democracy, creative spirit, the dignity of the individual, the progress of inclusive growth. He realized that India and the US are two big countries with unmatched diversity. The world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy had no option but to embrace each other’s status in the international system. It is all too often the case that such speeches are absorbed by a pinch of salt as acts of symbolism rather than substance. But the 2016 presidential election campaign has thrown up a remarkable[3] fact. President Obama’s speech in India was no different to the many speeches he gave to his own American people in the run up to the election. The speeches were same in tenor and substance. It reflected the same anxieties that he had about the United States as he had shared with the people of India. He did not distinguish between the internal divisions and external threats that face both India and US due to the similar nature of their societies albeit with vast differences in terms of economic development and capabilities. The Siri fort speech therefore, was intended to strike a chord at the most difficult of all strategic variables- the political level.

It is commendable that President Clinton, PM Vajpayee, President Bush, PM Singh had clear strategic vision for India-US relationship and stuck to it in economic and strategic terms but the final frontier in the India-US relationship is trust at the political level and only one leader from two countries made an attempt to make a small dent at it. Since India and US are too big to ever be allies, political trust and bipartisanship in both countries is the next ‘natural’ step for the relationship. I define trust-building here as not just as an outcome but a process. In terms of outcomes, it can be argued that South Asia was a blind spot for the Obama administration after the death of the experienced Richard Holbrooke but it is undeniable that when it comes to accounting for Indian sensitivities the Obama administration has done well. Their inability to exert more pressure on Pakistan Army was directly connected to the American stake in the Afghan future- an outcome India admittedly could not have done without in light of the growing China-Pakistan nexus. The stronger India-Afghanistan relationship was due to greater consultation between the three countries- India, Afghanistan and US.

President Obama seemed to have realized that one variable that eludes other leaders in the region- Trust, which can only come from increased interaction and most importantly articulation of the relationship. In that regard, President Obama was insistent that India is poised to fulfill its potential as an emergent power if she does not succumb to the same problems of inequality, segregation and poverty. This message had clear parallels to his message to the American people during the campaign. The eventual result of the Presidential campaign may not have gone in his favor but it does prove that he did not change his message depending on either the Indian or the American people.  This quality specifically builds trust. The skepticism about his policies towards Pakistan may be understandable but one of the important corollaries of de-hyphenation which India desires is that we have to judge Obama administration’s policy towards India and Pakistan separately and not in the same framework such as Af-Pak or Indo-Pak. Eventually, even Afghanistan desires de-hyphenation from Pakistan. And as standalone policy towards two different countries, the India-US relationship grew in trust while the US-Pakistan relationship grew in mistrust with tangible manifestations in the US drone program.

The biggest impact of President Obama will be felt on the domestic politics of India and US. He has always insisted that there are only two political heroes that he looks up to- Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Shiv Shankar Menon in his latest book backs the notion[4] that personalities at the very top of the pyramid are very important in the India-US relationship. President Obama in that regard was a man who understood enough the realities of India and the nature of the Indian state. Being a politician with mixed race background he was very careful about sending a consistent inclusive message to Indian and American public respectively.  Admittedly, even during his tenure there were irritants and drift in the Indo-US relationship but the progress was steady between two very large countries. Finally it might be speculative, but the speech he gave in India suggested that US was ready to invest economic, military and political capital at all levels of the Indian system- Government to Government, Defense and grassroots. While the Indian leadership is always wary of American interference, the last eight years saw almost no use of that narrative. This is because bi-partisanship can be translated into strategic gains only when it starts to develop natural political trust and the Obama administration was careful to let it build temporally rather than grow restless with the political spectrum in India.

In contrast is the statement of President-elect Trump[5] who in his first thanking speech to the Indian community chose characteristic informal brevity in place of formal political articulation. President Obama in contrast seemed to be well versed with the rich intellectual tradition of India and spoke to that when dealing with this ‘defining relationship’. The definition in a ‘defining relationship’ has to come from the top and that’s where President Obama will be missed.


[1] http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-us-major-defence-partner-agreement-manohar-parrikar-ashton-carter-4418019/

[2] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/27/remarks-president-obama-address-people-india

[3] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/president-obamas-campaign-blitz-hillary-clinton-historic/story?id=43249593

[4] http://www.brookings.in/event-report-choices-inside-the-making-of-indias-foreign-policy/

[5] http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/we-did-great-with-the-hindus-trump-thanks-indian-americans-for-role-in-polls-triumph/story-r7MPprmLjDaDSu89hVrg7H.html

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Prateek Kapil
Associate Fellow
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