Obama and India: The best might be ahead

Last Updated: Wed, Nov 07, 2012 10:44 hrs

Most mandarins at South Block – which houses  India's  ministry of external affairs - heaved a sigh of relief following the re-election of Barack Obama as the President and commander-in-chief of the United States of America.

A major reason of course is the continuity that this brings in America's foreign policy during a time of major political and financial turmoil across the world.  

When he was first elected President in November 2008, there were fears in New Delhi that Obama would reverse or dilute the unprecedented India-friendly initiatives taken by his Republican predecessor George W Bush.  

Bush's focus on a strategic relationship with New Delhi led not just to India being inducted into the elite 'nuclear weapons state' club, it started high-level interaction and discourses on almost 25 subjects ranging from energy, education, cyber-security, science and technology, health and women's issues, and intelligence and counter-terrorism, among others. More importantly, Bush accepted India's position that Kashmir was a bilateral issue.  

But Barack Obama did not renege, he built on that relationship. Military and intelligence cooperation increased - US intelligence and pressure had a lot to do with the recent repatriation of terrorist suspects by Saudi Arabia to India.  

The sides held 56 joint military exercises last year, and the two navies cooperate to keep the peace in not just the Indian Ocean region, but as far afield as the coast of Somalia and all the way to South Pacific.  

India has ordered millions of dollars of military equipment from America, though US firms Boeing and Lockheed lost out to the France's Dassault in the $10 billion fighter aircraft order put out by India, pegged as one of the largest in the world. And so far, Washington has not offered to mediate on Kashmir.  

Despite bickering over what the US sees as Indian protectionism, bilateral trade is likely to reach $100 billion in 2013, from the $86 billion in 2011-12. A bilateral investment treaty is under discussion. (To put it in context, US-China trade is pegged at $539 billion in 2011.)

Indian Americans — estimated at three million - have been increasingly punching above their weight in their adopted land, economically and politically. Interestingly enough, a recent survey in the US reportedly  discovered that in the just-concluded elections, "about 20 per cent of Indian Americans who believed in Republican policies defected towards Obama camp." With more than 35 Senators on board, the India Caucus in the American Senate is by far the largest.

But does that mean smooth sailing in bilateral relations over the next four years?


Some critical US restrictions still remain in high-technology cooperation.

Earlier this year, India, which imports over 75 per cent of its crude oil needs, had to scale down its oil import from Iran from 16 per cent in 2008 to 10 per cent now to escape US sanctions.

Washington and New Delhi also differ over how to treat Pakistan, despite Indian admiration for the way Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was taken out by US forces in Abbottabad, less than 100 km from Islamabad and Rawalpindi.  

The slow pace of opening up of the Indian insurance, retail and defence sectors continues to irk American business. The two sides also have radically different views on tackling climate change.

Obama's strong anti-outsourcing views too worry India's IT majors, as does  the tightening of the US business visa regime, though India Inc grudgingly accepts that this will be resolved one way or the other only when the Obama regime restructures its immigration policy as promised.  

The proposed pullout of America's forces from Afghanistan too has India concerned, given Pakistan's aggressive attempts to regain leverage in Kabul.

Those talking of a burgeoning strategic relationship need to compare the joint statements issued following bilateral meetings between Obama with president Hu Jintao of China and India's prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency.

The first defines the relationship in a far more global and regional context than the latter does.

Some experts assert that the reason that neither Obama nor his Republican rival Mitt Romney mentioned India in their campaign was because both agreed that the two nations were on the road to a far deeper and meaningful bilateral relationship, and there was not really much to talk about there.

If that is indeed the case, then perhaps we too should believe what Barack Obama told the people of America after his re-election as President earlier today: The best is yet to come.

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Ramananda Sengupta is a senior editor and strategic analyst.

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