By Aditya Ramachandran II Staff Writer
The real importance of President Barack Obama’s recently concluded visit to India has been hidden below several layers of hyperbole. From the surprisingly warm chemistry between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi, to the touted greater potential economic engagements between the two giants, on the surface level it does seem that the short-term potential of the U.S- India relationship abounds with possibility. All that being said, beneath loud rhetoric about progress, the relationship remains as prone to disintegration as ever.
To put U.S- India ties in their appropriate context, it has to be said that their basic contours have been stable for the last decade and a half. Both nations celebrate commitment to democratic ideals, and are hard-fought–and hard-won–pluralist societies. That being said, both sides hold a strong sense of strategic independence that puts national self-interest above all.
It is this sense of autonomy that could potentially undermine their relationship: as the Indian state has historically refused, and continues to refuse, to act as a global lieutenant to the United States. For this very reason, this relationship can never be the special friendship shared by the United States and the Britain.
Despite all the talk about the White House’s pivot to India since Obama’s first term in office, New Delhi maintains inherently distinct interests from Washington. This propensity for the relationship to derail has been exhibited several times in recent years- most recently in December of 2013, where the two nations ended a chilly diplomatic standoff over the treatment of an Indian diplomat in New York, with the resignation of the American ambassador Nancy Powell.
Still, there was very much a mixed bag of significant takeaways from this visit. Under the Modi government’s purview, India will help to revive what is called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an entity considered dormant since 2008.
Both heads of state expressed their mutual strategic interests through an entity called the U.S- India Joint Strategic vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region. The references were to maritime security and freedom of navigation through the hotly contested South China Sea. It can be extrapolated that under its relatively new political strongman leader, India is finally taking steps to becoming the democratic counterweight to China that the established Western powers have always wanted it to be.
Though the end of the nuclear deadlock between the two countries was also seen as a significant takeaway of the visit, the US- India nuclear agreement is misunderstood. Described by the White House as an agreement which “resolves the US concerns on both tracking and liability,” what this deal does is tweak Indian law which “makes sure that victims of a nuclear accident can get quick compensation, without having to prove the plant operator was negligent, and irrespective of who was at fault” for U.S corporations, which usually have governmental backing abroad.
This allows American corporations off the hook in the light of a disaster. Considering that the Indian government never managed to try the Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide- an American corporation responsible for the worst industrial accident in history, in the Indian state of Bhopal- one has to consider could go wrong in the future. On a more tertiary note, India and the United States renewed a defense framework for the next decade, with the introduction of the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative, which will facilitate the co- development, and production of a broad range of military equipment.
Whilst there were some concrete takeaways from the Republic Day visit of President Obama, the underlying fractiousness of the partnership was on full display in a Delhi town hall address to Indian youth on Obama’s last day in the country. The President uttered a thinly veiled warning that in order for India to succeed, it must maintain its sense of religious tolerance. This was without doubt a jab at the Hindu nationalist BJP government, and their records at cultural assimilation- seen at home and abroad as less than stellar.
Overall, whilst it may be springtime for the still brittle US- India relations, the true value of Mr. Obama’s visit remains symbolic rather than physical. This is not in itself an entirely bad thing, as it shows desire from Washington to improve relations with what the late commentator Christopher Hitchens called the United States’ “future most important ally.” Now that he has a willing partner, Mr. Obama should continue to strive for a stronger relationship with India, instead of letting ties drift as done before.