The US President Barack Obama closed his eight years of the presidency with an emotional speech on Tuesday last. When he entered 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as its tenant in 2009, there were high expectations from within the country and abroad. India was no exception. Now that he has bid adieu to his Presidency, his considerable legacy towards India needs to be assessed.
No doubt India will miss Obama who has emerged as a reliable friend. “I believe the relationship between India and the United States will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century,” Obama had said at a joint news conference with Prime Minister Singh in 2009. The US Ambassador to India Richard Verma, said in Washington recently, “I think that US-India relations have been strengthened throughout these past eight years of the Obama administration.”
The Indo-US relationship which had seen highs and lows started looking up in Bill Clinton’s first term but it was taken forward in his second term in spite of India’s adventurous Pokhran nuclear tests. George W Bush, recognising India’s strategic importance, went out of the way in signing the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2008. President Obama continued and took forward in many other areas including strategic affairs. In short, from the days of opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal as a Senator, Obama saw it consummated once he occupied the White House.
Obama’s Presidency had straddled on two Indian Prime Ministers - first Manmohan Singh, and from 2014, Narendra Modi. The personal chemistry was good with both although his relationship with Modi was more flamboyant with hugs and first name. This certainly worked to India’s advantage, as Obama enjoyed a good working relationship with both the Prime Ministers. To host Manmohan Singh as Obama’s first state visitor with a formal state dinner in October 2009 was seen as a deliberate signal of India’s prominence in Washington. Modi was the fifth Indian Prime Minister to address the US Congress last year. All these were possible because Obama had inherited a bipartisan support for India. Added to that was the increasing profile of the Indian diaspora.
The dramatic shift in his foreign policy toward India—from a lukewarm handshake to a strong embrace had strengthened and deepened the bilateral ties. When Obama took over in 2009, New Delhi was apprehensive of a re-hyphenation of India and Pakistan. New Delhi was also concerned with his initial flirting with Beijing. But this changed once he visited India in October 2010. His romance with India began soon which continued until his last day in office ending on a high note. Obama has been the only US President to visit India twice in 2010 and 2015. The frequency of high-level visits and exchanges between India and the US has gone up significantly.
Obama made the ties with India a key point of his legacy for South Asia, which has developed into a global strategic partnership. This is due to increase convergence of interests on bilateral, regional, and global issues.
Obama accorded priority for building closer strategic, security, and defence ties between India and the US. India conducts more military exercise with the United States than with any other country. There is also deeper collaboration on co-production and co-development of defence equipment. India is the second largest market for the US arms industry amounting to $17 billion in the past five years. This is likely to expand further in the coming years.
He has also promoted ties in other areas including the energy sector, intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation. Education, agriculture, energy, healthcare, space, science and technology, research and development, and climate change are equally vital areas of cooperation for both nations.
Obama openly committed the US support for India’s claim for a permanent membership of the UN Security Council and the technology control regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group, etc. On several issues, such as the rise of China, the future of Afghanistan and terrorism, New Delhi and Washington are increasingly on the same page. They have also supported the Afghan government and opposed the spread of the Taliban. India desires to see a continued American military presence in the country.
On the downside, not many efforts had been made on the bilateral trade, which is still low compared to the vast capabilities and resources. The current trade is just about $100 billion per year, which could be increased to $500 billion in the next five years. Much needs to be done to relax H1-B visas and double taxation. On many key issues, such as trade and climate change the US and India have held opposite views. One irritant during the Obama period was the bitter diplomatic row over Indian diplomat Devayani’s alleged exploitation of her housekeeper and her arrest.
Now all eyes are on his successor Donald Trump who will take over on January 20. It is not known whether Trump would continue on the same path, as it is too early to predict.
With his blunt opinions about outsourcing and immigration during the campaign, New Delhi has some genuine apprehensions. The silver lining is the growing clout of the Indian diaspora, which is about 3.5 million. Whether Trump would chalk out a new course or follow the Obama policies, by and large, is to be seen.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)