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Symbolism plus

From n-deal to a reworked Indo-Pacific balance of power, Modi-Obama point to a new India-US future.

By: Express News Service |
January 27, 2015 12:53:14 am

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited US President Barack Obama to join the nation’s Republic Day celebrations this week, it was widely assumed that the visit was all about symbolism. Modi and Obama, however, had other plans — to infuse the special symbolic moment with genuine political substance. Although India is the world’s largest democracy and America is the world’s oldest republic, no US President before Obama has been present at India’s sacred political ritual in the last week of January for the last 65 years. Political estrangement between the two countries during the Cold War and deepening anti-Americanism in the Indian political classes had made it impossible to imagine an American president on Rajpath.

If Modi surprised the nation, and America, by inviting Obama for the Republic Day celebrations, the American president reciprocated the warmth by rescheduling the annual State of the Union Address to the US Congress to be in Delhi this weekend. Since the two leaders had met barely four months ago at the White House, there was little expectation that the visit would produce any significant outcomes. It was to be a feel-good visit that would celebrate the emerging warmth in the relationship over the last few years. There would be multiple photo-opportunities for any visiting leader — including the dramatic ceremonial reception on the forecourts of Rashtrapati Bhavan and the spectacular marchpast by one of the world’s oldest and most colourful armed forces.

Over the last few weeks, Modi and Obama have driven their bureaucracies in Delhi and Washington to wrap up the civil nuclear initiative that raised so much excitement a decade ago but turned into a representation of all that was unfortunate about the relationship — the inability of the two systems to implement agreements and understandings reached at the highest political level. Similarly, on the defence front, unending talks on technology transfers have been brought to a close by identifying a set of projects. The visit has seen the emergence of some common ground on climate change, which has long been a source of political tension between the two countries. The two leaders also unveiled a shared vision for securing the future of the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region. Unlike the UPA government, which was hesitant to engage the US on the challenges of constructing a stable balance of power in the vast Indo-Pacific region, Modi has now decided to work with Obama on finding a convergence between India’s Act East policy and America’s Pivot to Asia. Over the longer term, this could be the most consequential development in India’s relations with America.

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