Carolyn Kaster / AP

Obama, Modi visits more symbolism than substance

Forging a real US-India partnership requires an honest conversation on regional and global issues

January 28, 2015 2:00AM ET

What a year it has been for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A victory in the May 2014 national elections was followed by victories in various state elections, which cemented his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s control over the country’s often fractious and rambunctious political system. Between these electoral wins, he racked up high-visibility foreign visits, including trips to Japan and Australia. But no event has gripped media attention as much as his triumphal visit to the United States, where he and President Barack Obama apparently made an instant connection. Modi’s reception in the U.S. promised a rejuvenation of ties between the two countries after several years of apparent antagonism. His decision to invite Obama as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebration on Monday portends a sea change in Indo-U.S. relations. Obama is the first U.S. president to have the honor and the first to visit India twice while in office.

The Modi-Obama engagement has been characterized as a reboot of Indo-U.S. relations, complete with a pivot to India by the United States. But the proof of such assertions lies in tangible outcomes of high-level conversations that took place behind the scenes at these meetings. The list of topics is long and ranges from restarting negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty to reaching compromise on civil nuclear liability laws and patent protections that India’s large pharmaceutical industry can live with, paving the way for greater U.S. investment in the Indian defense sector and joint counterterrorism efforts. On Jan. 25, the two leaders announced a breakthrough civil nuclear deal, which would allow U.S. companies to set up reactors in India.

While the optics of Obama’s visit are welcome, evidence of progress in relations remains elusive. For example, a closer look at the civil nuclear deal reveals that no real agreement was reached and that the negotiations are being left to private companies. In fact, the Indian Parliament passed the nuclear deal in 2006 under Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh. The latest agreement resolved differences over India’s liability laws in case of accidents and U.S. insistence on tracking nuclear supplies to India. But it remains unclear if the agreement will persuade U.S. companies to invest. Despite all the talk about Obama’s pivot to India and the two countries’ being natural partners, Washington and Delhi maintain distinct interests, some of which overlap but many of which don't.

A tactical ally

The basic contours of the U.S.-India relations have been stable for at least the past 15 years and arguably for the past half-century. Both countries appreciate the other’s shared commitments to liberal democracy but also recognize a stubborn independent streak that places self-interests first. In other words, pragmatic realism often trumps the heady idealism that some hope and assert undergirds this relationship. This is not the special friendship shared by the United States and the United Kingdom, nor is it even the strategic partnership the U.S. has forged with Japan, South Korea, Germany or even Saudi Arabia.

The United States has long viewed India as a potential tactical ally for balancing against a rising China, but its primary interests are driven not by India’s aspirations but by what the realities of its hegemony require from Asia. The U.S. has major naval bases across Asia, though notably not in India, where interservice joint exercises are the extent of military partnership. The U.S. is engaged in ongoing trade negotiations through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would deepen its investment and trade opportunities throughout the Asia-Pacific region, though, again, notably India is not at the table for these conversations.

The Obama-Modi engagement is important, but we should not ignore the elephant in the room: In order to move their relationship to the next level, India and the United States will have to agree on what to do about Pakistan.

From Washington’s perspective, India’s historic espousal of a nonalignment policy has been a major impediment to a deeper partnership. The U.S. worldview is fundamentally Manichaean — you are either with America or against it — and nonalignment seemed a convenient evasion and cover for India’s pro-Soviet leanings. It was hoped that the end of the Cold War and the rapid decline of the Russian Federation would create an opportunity for bolstering ties between India and the United States, but this view misunderstands India’s interests. For India, Washington is an important partner, but it is not the only one. In a very real sense, nonalignment was a misnomer for India’s foreign policy. The nation’s political leaders and diplomats have always believed that India was capable of maintaining friendly relationships with a diverse set of states. Its foreign policy has been and continues to be fervently nonideological and avowedly pragmatic, driven foremost by a desire for economic investment rather than by security considerations.

The mismatch in worldviews extends to the economic realm. An oft-cited frustration of U.S. businesses seeking to expand to India is the inability to plan for the long haul in any meaningful manner. The best-laid strategic visions of U.S. multinationals flounder on the craggy shoals of Indian life. Byzantine bureaucratic regulations, opaque business practices and the need for jugaad  — a euphemism for “innovations” or “workarounds” — often leaves U.S. policymakers and would-be investors bewildered and aggravated. To turn George Bernard Shaw’s quip on its head, India and the United States share a language but are separated by everything else.

The Obama-Modi nuclear deal is not surprising, given the pressures on both leaders to produce. But we should not minimize the importance of concrete agreements. Nor should we ignore the elephant in the room — Pakistan — for if Indian and the United States are to move their relationship to the next level, the two sides will have to agree on what to do about Pakistan. India and Pakistan have been locked in long-standing conflict over Kashmir since independence. India believes that Pakistan’s military establishment has long supported terrorist organizations that have struck India repeatedly, including in the devastating attack in Mumbai in 2008. New Delhi wants the United States to apply its considerable pressure on Pakistan to get it to stop these activities. But Pakistan, not India, remains Washington’s vital ally in the region. Washington needs Pakistan’s backing for U.S. operations in Afghanistan and will not push Islamabad too hard on matters important to India such as suspending support for alleged extremist groups or convicting the perpetrators of attacks.

The Indian market, whether for retail goods and services or large defense contracts, is extremely attractive to the United States, especially as it is poised to have the fastest-growing large economy, surpassing China’s. But Pakistan’s role in fighting terrorism and stabilizing Afghanistan is far more important to Washington. For this to change, India’s leaders must be willing to partner with the U.S. on such efforts and deal with the consequences of increased regional assertiveness.

Ahead of his historic visit, Obama issued a statement calling India a “natural partner” for the United States. This is as true today as it was 52 years ago when John F. Kennedy sent the USS Kitty Hawk into the Bay of Bengal to signal to China his intention to defend India. Symbolic visits are important first steps to forge a real partnership. But a deeper partnership requires India to expand its role on the world stage — for example, by helping to stabilize Afghanistan and supporting the global fight against terrorism — and to articulate its evolving relationship with China. For the United States, an honest conversation about the relative importance of Pakistan and India is vital. Whether Obama and Modi are ready to have these conversations in their own countries and with each other remains to be seen.

Irfan Nooruddin is an associate professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He blogs at www.irfannooruddin.org.

Jeh Tirodkar is an undergraduate student in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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