Updated: January 27, 2015 12:26:22 am
Amid the multiple bear hugs and the shock of hearing Prime Minister Narendra Modi break out in English, prompting his own hidden reserves of Hindi in response, surely President Barack Obama had missed the exquisite choreography marking The Visit. Every step and rhythm had been worked to perfection: the son of the chaiwallah pouring the president’s chai, photographs of the bro-stroll around the stately paths of Hyderabad House, the mouth-watering menu of mustard fish curry, gushtaba, and achari paneer, the unprecedented two hours of sitting out in the open on Rajpath causing the biggest security headache in the history of the Secret Service, the parade comprising Russian-made MI-35 helicopters overhead and Russian-made T-90 tanks rumbling down the rainy majestic boulevard, barely hours after the US was all set to make sure that future parades of armaments will be vastly more American-made.
A lame-duck US president usually has few friends left in Washington DC, and even fewer in other nations’ capitals. But in New Delhi, he seemed to have finally found a dance partner: the Barry and Narry duo were in sync and barely missed a step.
Mind you, the dance of diplomacy should not be taken lightly. It is time the two countries put the embarrassment of Khobragate behind them and got serious about the real pain points for Obama’s foreign policy: the triumvirate of China, Russia, Pakistan. It is time to finally recognise that befriending India is a diplomatic hat-trick: a single ally to counterbalance all three annoyances. For this alone, the chai, the cha-cha-cha and the rest of the hoopla was worth it.
Obama missed an essential truth: that you can never escape song and dance numbers, central to any Indian production. Obama also seemed to have missed the fact that he had deftly danced around three big issues: earth, wind and fire.
The earth is getting hotter — 2014 was the warmest year on record, a timely reminder to get down to the upcoming climate talks in Paris later this year. India is already a heavy-hitter in this area. While it ranks third in the world in greenhouse gas emissions, its rate of increase is on track to ensure that India will overtake China and the US. On other measures, India is not waiting in third place. Delhi already leads the world’s cities in the airborne particulate matter, PM2.5, considered most harmful to health, with Patna in hot pursuit as number two. Delhi and Patna’s levels of particulate matter are six times World Health Organisation-mandated safe limits. Half of the top 20 cities in the world with the highest levels of PM2.5 were in India. With this backdrop, it might have been useful for the Obama delegation to raise the issue and recall that the United Nations is expecting governments to submit credible plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions in advance of Paris.
Instead of getting anywhere close to the game-changing emissions-cutting deal that the US forged with China, the talk in Delhi was limited to light murmurs of “support” for Indian clean energy: a billion dollars from the US Export-Import Bank for American companies willing to ship equipment to India and a US Agency for International Development field officer to be installed this summer to further mobilise private capital for the clean energy sector. For context, the authorised financing of the total value of exports by the US Export-Import Bank is $279 billion.
To be fair, there was “concrete progress”, according to Obama, on India’s abiding by the Montreal Protocol and phasing down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Tackling HFCs is important because they are up to 11,700 more powerful agents of global warming than carbon dioxide, according to the UN. But somehow, the description “concrete progress” seems a bit laced with oxymoronic irony with a dash of diplomatic doublespeak; it would be wise for green enthusiasts to wait for the concrete to set in before doing a jig for joy about progress.
The president also danced around an issue that Amnesty International had been harping on in advance of his visit: for him to address the question of bringing justice to the survivors of the Bhopal disaster that brought deadly gas with the wind carried from the Union Carbide plant to the homes of the thousands of dead and injured. US companies, first Union Carbide and now Dow Chemical, have routinely ignored Indian court orders to acknowledge liability, pay for cleaning up and to fairly compensate the victims and survivors. “This must end. Indian and US authorities [have] failed the people of Bhopal for too long. Justice for Bhopal requires the government of India to demand proper restitution and pursue it vigorously.” The message from Amnesty could not have been clearer.
If Modi and Obama talked about Bhopal, they must have been awfully quiet about it. Instead, they did set in motion a “breakthrough” that had heads turning on a deal that has the long shadow of Bhopal all over it. Here again, it took some fancy footwork to avoid any connections between wind and the third topic they danced around: Fire — and the energy needed to light one.
I speak, of course, of the one thing that no one will stop speaking about in the weeks to come. The Gordian knot around the India-US deal on nuclear energy was apparently untied. In essence, India’s liability laws remained unchanged and the new agreement calls for a combination of insurance pools and Indian assurances that a “memorandum of law” would be used to ensure compliance with international liability rules. With Bhopal still an open wound and having witnessed the Japanese go through their own nightmare with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown, does this arrangement give skittish lawyers in US companies enough confidence to urge their CEOs to rush to India? Should it make Indian citizens feel secure? I am not sure.
US companies have been urged to do their own risk assessments — definitely not what US CEOs and their lawyers want to hear. It is worth noting that the risk is not just that of liability in case of an accident. There is a risk of the nuclear option not being an economically attractive one for India, a country where coal-fired electricity is sold at some of the lowest prices anywhere in the world. And with the price of oil at historic lows, it will be interesting to see how much of a real breakthrough the nuclear deal turns out to be.
“Now, ultimately, it’s up to the companies to decide whether to go forward or not,” said Obama. “But the two governments came a long way to reach an understanding.” Long way, indeed. I was recently on the jury for the Bernard Schwartz Book Award given by the Asia Society; we picked The Blood Telegram by Gary J. Bass as the 2014 winner. The reason I loved the book was because it is one of the best ways to get a sense of India-US relations at their nadir, during the Nixon-Kissinger era. It gives us a wonderful opportunity to gauge how far Obama-Kerry have come.
Obama did do some deft dancing in this short and eventful bear-hug with India. He was schooled well in the art of tip-toeing around really tough issues. The Indian dance lesson is bound to come in handy at his next stop in Saudi Arabia — and, if he hopes to make any friends in his remaining time in DC, he could give it a whirl there as well.
The writer is senior associate dean of international business and finance at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and the founding executive director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context
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