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Obama to India: Strengthening a Bipartisan Relationship

November 3, 2010

President Obama’s three-day visit to New Delhi starting Saturday comes at an opportune moment. It will set at rest doubts, voiced since he took office, on the longevity of the bipartisan concord that was built upon strengthening bilateral relations with India. It was President Bill Clinton’s landmark visit in 2000 in the last year of his second term that set a more ambitious bench-mark. The visit projected India as a dynamic, growing nation and a valuable interlocutor for the U.S. in Asia.

India streets light up for Diwali

President Obama arrives in India in time to participate in Diwali celebrations.

President George W. Bush took this partnership further by signing the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. At the mid-point of his first term, President Obama’s visit holds much promise in further buttressing this global strategic partnership between the two countries. India is acutely conscious of the problems that the U.S. currently faces domestically, as well as in South Asia and beyond, and is expected to approach the discussions in a spirit of cooperation and mutual benefit.

The visit will undoubtedly resonate strongly with India’s government. But it will also be on the forefront of the minds of the people of India – far more so than earlier presidential visits. As the U.S. President, Obama represents not only a super-power, but a country that has demonstrated the ability to accept persons for the highest office regardless of where they come from, their color, or religion. These are powerful messages that the Obama visit will send to India’s people. It is just as well that he starts his visit paying homage to the martyrs of the 26/11 brutal terror attack in Mumbai which is starkly etched on the psyche of Mumbai’s citizens. His town-hall format meeting at St. Xavier’s College will bring him face-to-face with India’s youth who represent 65 percent of the nation’s population.

The visit is also an opportunity to discuss many emerging developments that affect India and its neighbors as well as the U.S. The draw-down of the war in Afghanistan will undoubtedly take center stage in discussions, given its complexity and close linkages to Pakistan and Central Asia. The ongoing challenges facing Pakistan contribute to uncertainty in the region, and to India-Pakistan relations. Some worry that the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist groups further adds a potent element to this heady brew. President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are expected to discuss mitigating strategies to manage these concerns.

A rising China is another major element in the countervailing strategy that both countries must now consider in the context of an increasing international focus toward Asia. Both countries face economic, political, strategic, and security concerns from China’s rise. There is equal reason for the two to engage in high-level discussions on some other intractable international issues like environmental sustainability, global warming, energy security, and ensuring better governance of the global commons: space, sea, air, ocean fisheries, and land.

Other large issues on the agenda for the upcoming G-20 Summit in Seoul, such as the revaluation of the Chinese currency, re-structuring global financial governance, and the future of the Doha Round, are again issues on which India and the U.S. have vested interests and should discuss. In the backdrop of the recent ASEAN meeting, it was clear that maintaining a peaceful environment in the Asia-Pacific region will require cooperation between India and the U.S. and with other powers present in the region like Korea, Japan, China, and Russia.

Despite a heavy regional and global agenda, the crux of the visit will likely be the “deliverables” for the bilateral relationship. Many ideas have been discussed on ways to expand the momentum that the Nuclear Deal has given the relationship toward increased cooperation in education, health, and sustainable, inclusive growth. More importantly, the growing India-U.S. military relationship has seen much forward movement through joint army and naval exercises. There is a very real possibility that the two leaders will finalize agreements to further enhance this cooperation. The prospect of India acquiring U.S. defense equipment is high, as the U.S. is in line as a source for 130 multi-role combat aircrafts needed by the Indian Air Force. Nevertheless, the success of the visit will be largely judged upon how much it opens up the possibility for cooperation in sectors like education, manufacturing, high technology exchanges, investment, and trade. In this context, there is hope that the contentious out-sourcing issue will find a mutually beneficial denouement during the visit.

The visit is both an occasion for consolidation and forward movement. The developments in Asia present a continuous challenge to the power of diplomacy of the two countries. President Obama comes to the land of Mahatma Gandhi, whose portrait he kept in his Senate Office, to experience for himself the spiritual roots of the civil rights movement in the U.S. He will carry with him a first-hand experience of over one billion Indians of diverse cultures, languages, religions, and ethnicities living harmoniously in a truly democratic, open, and secular polity.

Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar is The Asia Foundation’s advisor in India. He can be reached at RAbhyankar@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Rajendra Abhyankar

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