OSAKA – It was touching to see Narendra Modi and Barack Obama together, the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies. They did not stand stiffly on ceremony as you would expect of two leaders, especially during the pomp and circumstance of great state occasions.
India’s prime minister dispensed with protocol to turn up to greet the U.S. president on his arrival at the airport in Delhi. The two men hugged and were seen several times joking freely together, as if they were long lost brothers.
The words “lovefest” and “bromance” come to mind. It was a refreshing change from the contempt that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger showed a generation ago for Indira Gandhi’s India, or indeed from the well-mannered correctness of previous prime minister Manmohan Singh on his meetings with recent U.S. presidents.
For all this, there are questions about how deep the relationship is between the two countries, as opposed to the two leaders. Their personal friendship may create an important feel-good factor, although remember that Obama is in the lame-duck final two years of his presidency, and Republican hunters are all out to get him.
Before Obama cut short his visit to jet off to pay his respects to King Salman, the new ruler of Saudi Arabia, he offered a laundry list of important issues that India still needs to work on, including encouraging democratic ideals, combatting climate change, empowering women and girls, promoting religious and racial tolerance and improving prospects for young people.
Obama spoke powerfully, at times beautifully, including his assertion that: “The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts. And it finds its glorious expression when we look beyond any differences in religion or tribe, and rejoice in the beauty of every soul.” A passing thought occurs — would any other leader dare offer the same or similar challenges to Obama in his own country? Obama’s calls to respect all human dignity, as well as for racial and gender equality and the empowerment of the jobless young, could equally be applied to the United States.
The U.S. president’s decision to leave India for Saudi Arabia was a reminder that the U.S. is a global power and India’s is one among many friendships.
Henry John Temple, better known as the third Viscount Palmerston, famously observed that nations do not have permanent friends, but only interests that must be defended. He told the British House of Commons in 1848: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow…”
John F. Kennedy, then junior senator from Massachusetts, saw the newly independent India and the new Communist China as engaged in “a struggle for the economic and political leadership of the East, for the respect of all Asia, for the opportunity to demonstrate whose way of life is the better.” He regarded it as vital for India to win that contest. Kennedy became president, and India assumed a higher profile and importance in Washington.
But it was not to last. Richard Nixon, whom Kennedy defeated, himself became U.S. president and did more than anyone to help China regain contact with the rest of the world.
Nixon’s, and Kissinger’s, personal antipathy toward Indira Gandhi, along with Pakistan’s role in opening China’s doors, turned Washington dangerously away from Delhi, and Delhi turned toward Moscow.
Obama no doubt noted the heavy weight of Russian hardware on display at the Republic Day parade, though he also knows that these days India is the world’s biggest arms importer.
Defense Minister Arun Jaitley said in August that of India’s 834 billion rupees in spending on weapons imports over the last three years, 326 billion rupees was on U.S. arms, followed by 254 billion rupees on Russian arms. India also purchased arms from France for 120 billion rupees, and 34 billion rupees from Israel in the same period. Russia remains India’s biggest weapons exporter, with sales worth more than $40 billion, from MiG-21 jets and T-55 tanks in the 1960s to the present-day Sukhoi-30MKI fighters and T-90S main-battle tanks.
The leading question is whether the global kaleidoscope has turned again to make India and the U.S. best friends like Modi and Obama, and whether India and the United States are partners again in a titanic struggle for democracy and the soul of the world.
That is too melodramatic. Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution gave a neat summary in a policy memo before Obama arrived in India, in which she wrote: “Today, both India and the U.S. have relationships with China that have elements of cooperation, competition and, potentially, conflict — though in different degrees. Each country has a blended approach of engaging China, while preparing for a turn for the worse in Chinese behavior.
Each sees a role for the other in its China strategy. Each thinks a good relationship with the other sends a signal to China, but neither wants to provoke Beijing or to be forced to chose between the other and China.”
Even so, attitudes toward — and in — China have changed since the early days of Obama’s presidency. Then, some analysts, who should have known better, predicted a Sino-U.S. Group of Two running the world. Not any longer: Today China is pursuing its own path with an increasingly confident attitude toward the rest of the world that sometimes borders on contempt. President Xi Jinping has consolidated more power in his own hands than any leader since Deng Xiaoping.
Every other day there is some fresh exhortation from China’s official media about the importance of adhering to socialist ideology and shunning Western values. The press and universities have been in the firing line, and reporters have been used to spy on university teachers to see that they keep the proper leftist ideological line.
China’s education minister last week warned that universities should keep criticism of China’s leaders or political system out of the classroom, and “never let textbooks promoting Western values appear in our classes.”
Beijing expressed concern about Obama’s visit to India, calling it a “superficial rapprochement.” How much substance and strength the rapprochement gathers depend very much on China and how it decides to pursue relations with the rest of the world, as a partner or as a series of client states.
Modi and Obama ruffled Beijing by criticizing China for provoking conflict with its neighbors in the South China Sea, and talked of reviving a security network embracing India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. But if you read carefully between the lines of the joint statement, it bears signs of uneasy stitching together of distinctly separate wish-lists of India’s ministry of foreign affairs and the U.S. State Department.
The two leaders made progress on liability law over nuclear fuel, upgraded defense co-production agreements and naval exercises, talked of India joining the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, and offered vague promises on trade — where India’s $100 billion a year with the U.S. is dwarfed by the $650 billion Sino-U.S. trade. But they barely touched on urgent action against climate change.
Bromance is one thing, but the proof of the friendship pudding will be in the eating. Modi proved himself again to be an adept international politician, showing a bonhomie that China’s Xi lacks. He has been criticized in the U.S. and European press for being slow to open the economy and, especially, remove caps on foreign investment.
To some extent this criticism is fair. Modi should be honing economic reforms, especially when China is under fire for a string of allegedly anti-foreign monopoly decisions. But Modi needs to do this for India. He should set out a level playing field with clear and fair rules that will encourage Indians and foreigners to help realize the country’s economic potential, but it is not his job to sell India’s store to foreigners, which is the way that foreign multinationals sometimes behave.
India is too big and far distant from the U.S. to be a faithful servant of Washington. It has to live with both China and Pakistan on its doorstep. If Modi and Obama managed to convince the U.S. that India is worth a prominent place in the American worldview, then it was a worthwhile visit. But remember, Obama is a wounded president and will be gone in less than two years.
Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group.
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