Stepping out of the shadows

Updated - November 17, 2021 03:04 am IST

Published - November 24, 2014 12:30 am IST

It is rare that a single bilateral invitation conveys as much as Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to U.S. President Obama to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade does. To begin with, the invitation corrects an anomaly, that has meant that America is the only world power never to have had a dignitary grace the occasion that Russian and Soviet leaders, as well as leaders of France, the U.K., Japan and China have, over 64 years. Secondly, the invitation signals that the India-U.S. relationship is now stepping out of the shadows on all aspects of bilateral relations: economic, political and military. In the past 23 years since India opened up its economy, trade with the U.S. has grown by 1000 per cent, and according to figures given by the Defence Minister in Parliament this August, the U.S. is now India’s biggest defence supplier. Add to this the deep people-to-people ties, built mainly by the more than three million Indian-Americans in the U.S., and thousands of students who graduate from American universities, and the visit will be what one diplomat described as an “open and honest acknowledgement of the relationship’s reality”.

Thirdly, the invitation, and its acceptance by the White House, signifies a much larger move on the world stage, a “coming out” of India and the U.S. with the ties they now share. For the past few months, Mr. Modi’s travels and public speeches have indicated a primacy to the United States that previous governments had stopped shy of giving. Some of the hesitation was owed to an unspoken suspicion of the U.S. felt in India’s establishment. It was this feeling of mistrust that guided much of the criticism of Mr. Manmohan Singh’s tenure during negotiations over the India-U.S. civilian nuclear deal, and spills over into issues of WTO and agricultural subsidies, as well as intellectual property rights. The concerns are also influenced by historical relations: the U.S.’s support to Pakistan during the Bangladesh war, its support of the Mujahideen and then the Taliban to defeat the Soviet Union in the Afghanistan war, and its refusal to take a position during the Kargil war. It would seem both levels of concerns are now in the past, and put aside by the Modi government as it embarks on a new course of relations with the U.S., including engagements with its strategic allies in the region, Japan and Australia. It may be in reaction to these developments that two other significant moves have been seen in India’s neighbourhood — the recent reachout by China to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Afghanistan, and by Russia to Pakistan with a new defence cooperation agreement. Even as India now prepares to celebrate its shared values with the U.S., the larger meaning of President Obama’s forthcoming visit has clearly not gone unnoticed.

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