A visit and outcomes in superlatives

The centrepiece of the Obama visit has been the ‘nuclear deal’, whose sticking points were a U.S requirement of keeping track of all U.S.-supplied nuclear equipment and materials at all times which India was reluctant to accept, and certain aspects of the liability law which suppliers found ambiguous. The U.S. now appears to have moderated its demand

January 27, 2015 01:27 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:32 pm IST

Everybody was confident that U.S. > President Barack Obama’s visit would be a good and successful one. There was enough in terms of symbolism to ensure that the following would have ensured a “good visit” — the first U.S. President to be the chief guest at the Republic Day; the first U.S. President to visit India twice during his tenure; the ceremony of the Republic Day parade notwithstanding the inclement weather; the excitement about the menu at the banquet the previous day; the buzz surrounding First Lady Michelle Obama’s outfits. The question was whether it would be a great visit, and a historic visit. Clearly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted it that way and he has successfully put his imprint on India-U.S. relations.

The fact that he has done so in less than a year of his becoming Prime Minister provides us an insight into his thinking. His pragmatism was evident when he put the decade-long “visa ban” issue behind him and readily accepted Mr. Obama’s invitation to visit Washington in September last year. The U.S. too was signalling that the India-U.S. file had regained importance after the general election and that it was departing from the norm that bilateral visits did not normally take place when leaders were visiting New York for the U.N. General Assembly. It was evident that the two leaders connected. Mr. Modi was able to convince Mr. Obama about his vision for India and his belief that it needed a strong partnership with the U.S. which he could deliver on.

Developing a partnership Mr. Obama had visited India early in his tenure and was upbeat when he talked about India and the U.S. developing “a defining partnership for the 21st century” but there has been little to show for it since. The ambiguities of India’s Nuclear Liability Act, the Defence Minister of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), A.K. Antony’s ability to stonewall proposals for closer ties, the retroactive tax policy announcements and the economic slowdown in India, coupled with Mr. Obama’s other growing preoccupations, both domestic and foreign, meant that the partnership was languishing. Looking around for legacy issues in the foreign policy area, Mr. Obama knew that India enjoyed the advantage of bipartisan support in Washington which was not the case with Cuba and Iran. Mr. Modi had understood this and rightly concluded that for India-U.S. ties, Mr. Obama’s lame-duck standing of being in his last stretch in the White House was inconsequential. The show at the Madison Square Garden in New York had shown the American people Mr. Modi’s power in galvanising the Indian-American diaspora, three million strong and emerging as a significant fund raiser for the 2016 American election. But before 2016, India had to be brought back into U.S. reckoning. This needed a political pitch, between leaders who had won elections against all odds, and Mr. Modi was willing to make that pitch.

Leadership and backup Transformative moments in > relationships between major powers need a strong commitment from the top leadership and effective backup in terms of staff work to get the bureaucracy to translate the vision into reality. It also implies an element of political risk taking. This is particularly evident in India-U.S. relations in recent years. Between 1998-2000, the empathy between Strobe Talbott and Jaswant Singh built up over more than a dozen rounds of talks in less than two years, created the backdrop against which Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee changed the idiom of India-U.S. relations from “estranged democracies” to “natural allies,” a politically bold but also a risky move at a time when India was under sanctions after the May 1998 nuclear tests. Brajesh Mishra, Mr. Vajpayee’s Principal Secretary and National Security Advisor, effectively established benchmarks for the bureaucracy in terms of giving content to the vision. Once most of the sanctions were lifted and President Clinton undertook a successful visit to India in March 2000, the two countries started working on the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership. This was carried forward with the Bush administration, though top level commitment between Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Bush was missing, because, as famously said, he found it difficult to understand Mr. Vajpayee’s long pauses.

The question was whether it would be a great visit, and a historic visit. Clearly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wanted it that way and he has successfully put his imprint on India-U.S. relations.

The unlikely pair to hit it off and impart a renewed commitment to the relationship was the exuberant President Bush and the considerably older, academically inclined Manmohan Singh. Dr. Singh and Mr. Bush created the nuclear breakthrough in 2005 and continued to shepherd it through difficult domestic politics for three years, till the deal was finally inked in October 2008, just a month before Mr. Obama was elected to the White House. President Bush had faced a hostile Congress especially after 2006, which actively took up the agenda of the non-proliferation lobby in Washington while Dr. Singh, who did not receive the full backing of either his party or of his coalition partners, even threatened to quit, putting his political legacy at stake. It is interesting that this unlikely risk taker later recalled the India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement as the memorable achievement of his 10-year tenure. Though the UPA came back with a stronger mandate in 2009, Dr. Singh was no longer “Singh is King” and gradually became a weaker Prime Minister, yielding often to “coalition dharma.” He developed a good equation with Mr. Obama who referred to him as a “wise guru” but Dr. Singh’s commitment to the bilateral relationship could no longer be translated into benchmarks, on account of a lack of adequate staff work and fractured authority. India-U.S. relations were put on the back burner, surfacing on the front pages only when a controversy like that of diplomat Devyani Khobragade erupted.

Notwithstanding that the think tanks bemoan that India does not know what it wants from the U.S., Mr. Modi knew clearly what he wanted from Mr. Obama. India-U.S. relations had to be brought back to the White House and as a risk taker, he was prepared to inject the element of personal chemistry into the relationship. Whatever the differences between Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama, both leaders know how to electrify a crowd and understand the concept of political charisma instinctively.

The element of personal chemistry, reflected in Mr. Modi’s departure from protocol to receive his “friend” Barack at the Delhi airport, the image of the two leaders engaged in an animated conversation as they seemingly ironed out the last minute hitches in the nuclear deal on the lawns of Hyderabad House, the chai pe charcha , exchanges on how much sleep each got, was the equivalent of high fives. In fact Mr. Modi referred to the personal chemistry that he shares with Mr. Obama during their joint press conference and this has become the necessary catalyst to sustain the momentum in the relationship over the next two years. This has enabled Mr. Modi to convert the Obama visit into a great and historic event.

The nuclear deal The centrepiece of the visit has been the “nuclear deal” though few details have emerged. There were two sticking points — administrative tracking which implies keeping track of all U.S.-supplied nuclear equipment and materials at all times and a U.S. requirement which India was reluctant to accept as it went beyond the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections that India had voluntarily agreed to, and certain aspects of India’s > nuclear liability law which U.S. suppliers (and other foreign and domestic suppliers too) found ambiguous and open-ended. It now appears that the U.S. has moderated its demand and will be satisfied with IAEA safeguards. In turn, the Indian side has explained its plans to set up an insurance pool amounting to Rs.1,500 crore (a ceiling under Indian law), half of which will be contributed by the suppliers and the operator (in this case, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.) and the balance, by the General Insurance Corporation of India (GIC) and four other insurance companies. The premium costs, at between 0.1 per cent, would amount to less than Rs.1 crore per reactor and can be easily factored into the overall costs. The Indian side has also made an assurance to provide a legal memorandum that suppliers will not be liable to general tort law claims and, accordingly, multiple, concurrent liability claims will not be entertained. In other words, recourse from suppliers in case of nuclear damage can only be under the Liability Act, which is now limited in amount. Presumably, the government is confident that this assurance will be able to withstand a legal challenge.

In any event, the visit has been dubbed a historic one. In place of two documents that emerged after Mr. Modi’s visit to Washington last year, there are now three — a 59 paragraph Joint Statement which moves from ‘ chalein saath saath ’ to ‘ sanjha prayas sabka vikas ’, a Delhi Declaration of Friendship which provides for more frequent high level exchanges and the establishment of hotlines, and a Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region which links the two regions and establishes India’s central role.

The leaders have spelt out the vision. Now begins the hard work of identifying benchmarks in different areas of civil nuclear and defence cooperation, counter-terrorism and cyber security, clean energy, trade and intellectual property rights, the bilateral investment treaty (BIT) and ‘Make in India’, smart cities and urban infrastructure planning, digital India, visa issues and Totalisation Agreement, etc and pursuing these in a time bound fashion. This requires efficient staff work, diligent application and effective coordination and monitoring so that each of these individual transactions can become milestones in the long road ahead.

(Rakesh Sood, a former Ambassador, was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014 and was closely involved with Indo-U.S. strategic dialogues from 1992 to 2004. E-mail: rakeshsood2001@yahoo.com )

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