Obama Travels to India: The Future of US-Indo Relations

After a personal invitation from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Obama made history as the first US president to visit India twice during his time in office. Serving as a guest of honour for India’s January 26th Republic Day celebrations, Obama’s acceptance of Modi’s invitation has been viewed as a meaningful gesture that could jumpstart a strong alliance between these respectively established and emerging world powers.

Image courtesy of Barthateslisa, ©2014, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Barthateslisa, ©2014, some rights reserved.

India has often been overshadowed by the exponential development of neighbouring China, but as China’s booming growth begins to slow, the International Monetary Fund predicts India will become the world’s fastest growing major economy. The US’s emphasis on creating strong ties with India is motivated by its unease at China’s rise as a global superpower and its desire to lock down a formidable ally in the region. Since his landslide victory in the historic May 2014 election, Modi’s primary focus has been revitalising India and its lacklustre economic performance. Modi sees plenty of fruitful opportunities associated with stronger US ties, all rooted in the resources and support that could aid India’s rise.

Obama and Modi discussed a vast range of topics including trade, defence cooperation, and climate change. The basis of US and India’s alliance is the economic benefits both nations would reap with a stronger trade partnership. Though the US’s trade partnership with China is still worth nine times as much as its partnership with India, Obama and Modi plan to have a five-fold increase in trade that would value US-Indo relations at $500 billion. This growth in trade is reflected in the US overtaking Russia as India’s primary military supplier. Relations between US and India have come a long way since the Cold War, when India acquired a majority of its weaponry from the Soviet Union.

Obama and Modi also renewed the US-India Defence Framework Agreement, which stipulates more joint military exercises and greater cooperation on intelligence-sharing and maritime security. The US is eager to co-develop advanced defence technologies, and India has shown particular interest in drones and carrier technology. While the US and India have little trouble reaching agreements in this area, the issue of climate change was a bit more controversial.

President Obama pressed Prime Minister Modi to make tangible commitments to reducing India’s carbon footprint, hoping to achieve a promise of reduction similar to that recently agreed to by China. Though not as concrete as China’s commitment, India released a statement saying it would establish a goal for the usage of renewable energy and increase India’s solar energy capacity by 2022. In return, the US pledged investments for India to work towards clean energy. Though the immediate outcomes stemming from Obama’s trip may seem relatively insignificant, they potentially serve as symbolic stepping-stones for a future US-Indo alliance.

While stronger relations are seemingly on the horizon when seen through the lens of highly publicised state visits, one cannot help but wonder the likelihood of such a relationship actually coming to fruition. There are a multitude of factors that would arm sceptics, such as the US and India’s differing views on foreign policy. The US’s amicable relationship with Pakistan has always been a point of contention for India, as has India’s relationship with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin was warmly received during his recent trip to India. Modi also refused to support the US-led sanctions on Russia after its intervention in Ukraine. Modi has a reputation as a realistic leader who pursues cross-border alliances based on whatever is best for his nation.

Similarly, internal strife within India could also prevent such a partnership. The Indian government has a reputation for being disorganised and corrupt, which makes it hard for the nation to maintain such a high-profiled alliance with a superpower like the US. The nation is shrouded in inefficiency, and still does not even operate in a single market system; trade between states involves multiple checkpoints and stops. Additionally, there are many politicians and citizens in India who are opposed to the strengthening of US-Indo ties. Anti-Western sentiments have meant politicians have not always been eager to advertise the nations’ relations with the US.

Modi is the first Indian prime minister to be so open about the relationship and its benefits. However, this raises the question about whether progress with a US-Indo relationship will be able to transcend the Obama-Modi relationship. There is a possibility that Modi’s successor will be highly opposed to aligning with the US, which would subsequently setback whatever progress Obama and Modi manage to achieve.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in US-Indo relations is India’s poor track record with social equality. In a parting speech, Obama confronted the nation’s history of religious intolerance and gender inequality. He urged the predominantly Hindu nation to look beyond differences in religion and caste and “rejoice in the beauty of every soul.” This statement was significant since Modi was denied a US visa based on accusations that he failed to quell 2002 religion-related riots in Gujarat, where he was serving as Chief Minister. Though the Indian government found no proof of Modi’s guilt, this violence still resulted in the death of 1,000 Muslims.

Obama also heavily criticised India’s treatment of women. He stressed that every daughter deserves the same opportunities as every son, and that the overall success of a nation reflects the success of its women. In December 2012, a high profile gang rape case of a young woman on a bus sent shockwaves across India. The intense media coverage of the case garnered much attention that led to calls for a gender equality revolution. Despite the knowledge that severe discrimination against women exists, little has been done to remedy this bias. There is a culture of victim-blaming that cites things like promiscuousness and women staying out too late as explanations to acts of sexual assault.

Modi has been criticised for not doing enough to further female rights and reverse biases in the nation. The issue of gender inequality is rooted deep within India’s patriarchal society, which is supported by the culture and religion. Since cultural and religious traditions are especially sensitive to change, it is unlikely that immediate strides towards gender equality will be achieved without a more rigorous campaign. If India does not make an active effort to overturn the strong sentiments of gender inequality, it is improbable that the US, a nation rooted in social justice ideals, will be willing to build a strong alliance.

There are many factors working against a long-term, successful relationship between the US and India. However, Obama’s recent trip does prove that the potential is there. There are already talks of Obama organising a third trip to India towards the end of his term, which shows that at the very least, the US and India are trying to make this alliance work.

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