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Op-Ed

5 Questions (and Answers) About President Obama’s Trip to India

Tanvi Madan

1. Why is President Obama going to India?

President Obama is going to India for its Republic Day celebrations. The Indian government invited him to be the chief guest for that commemoration. His visit from January 25 to 27 will follow closely on the heels of the September visit to Washington of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who took office in May 2014.

American presidents have visited India in the past—Eisenhower (1959), Nixon (1969), Carter (1978), Clinton (2000), Bush (2006) and Obama (2010), but expect to hear repeatedly about two “firsts” with regards to this presidential trip to India:

(1) This is the first time India has invited an American president to be chief guest at its Republic Day.
(2) This is the first time an American president will visit India twice while in office.

2. What’s this Republic Day? I hear there’s a parade.

India’s Republic Day (distinct from its Independence Day) marks the anniversary of the date in 1950 when India’s constitution went into effect. It was on that day that India became a republic, with a constitution in which its democratic and secular nature was enshrined. The U.S. Constitution influenced the drafters of this document in part. President Obama alluded to the connection when he spoke to India’s parliament in November 2010 (another honor not often given to foreign leaders), noting that “we are two strong democracies whose constitutions begin with the same revolutionary words —-‘We the people.’”

One aspect of the commemoration of Republic Day is indeed a parade that takes place on January 26 every year. It has both solemn and festive elements. India’s fallen and its brave (both military and civilian) are honored. Its diversity and its federalism are celebrated. And, as my Brookings colleague W.P.S. Sidhu has noted, it’s a demonstration of both India’s soft and hard power.

Personnel from the Indian military, paramilitary and police forces march past, accompanied by military bands. Military equipment is showcased—produced domestically and procured from abroad. This year expect an emphasis on the former, and perhaps, a highlighting of equipment acquired from the United States.

It’ll be interesting to see whether or not any equipment from Russia might feature—while India has been diversifying its purchases in recent years, that country remains a key defense supplier to India. On the soft power side, schoolchildren perform dances. There are floats (or tableaux—the term used in India) highlighting India’s states and some policy initiatives. There’s a riot of color, music and, yes, camels (they are part of the Border Security Force’s camel contingent). The parade usually ends with one of its most anticipated moments: daredevils on motorcycles and a fly-past with a tri-color (orange, white and green) smoke-trail.

Some media outlets have described the parade as a communist-style parade, but it pre-dates India-Soviet Cold War bonhomie and it’s to Britain rather than the Soviet Union that one might want to look for more of its inspiration. Think some combination of Trooping of the Colour in London, the Inauguration Day parade in Washington and/or the Victory Day parade in Moscow—with Indian touches, of course.

3. Is it a big deal that President Obama was invited? Isn’t this just “non-essential foreign travel”?

As two long-time South Asia hands and former U.S. diplomats put it, “it is a huge deal.” The invitation to be chief guest is one of the most significant honors that India can bestow on any foreign leader. The fact that it was even issued is historical and significant because of what it says about India’s world view, its leader’s foreign policy approach and the perception of the state of India-U.S. relations. Commentators have described it as a “watershed;” as India “exorcis[ing] yet another ghost” and moving past a “psychological barrier.” In the past, even when India-U.S. relations have been healthy and growing, an invitation hadn’t been forthcoming. Even as it has become much closer over the last decade, the relationship with the United States wasn’t one Indian policymakers seemed to want to highlight publicly. Many preferred to downplay the relationship; some even wanted to downright hide it. Governments were sensitive about being seen as moving too close to the United States. This sensitivity won’t go away entirely—see the speedy correction from the Indian foreign ministry spokesperson when he referred to the United States “one of our most friendly allies” and then quickly changed that to “partners”—and India will continue to maintain its other partnerships. But this moment does represent a shift.

This Indian prime minister has shown a willingness to bringing the India-U.S. relationship more out into the open. In an interview published a few days before the Indian election results were announced in May, Modi didn’t hesitate to use the term “natural allies” to describe the relationship. During his visit to the United States in an op-ed he outlined why he believed this relationship was important. He stressed that the United States was India’s “natural global partner” and that “India and the U.S. have a fundamental stake in each other’s success.” The Republic Day overture is the latest manifestation of this openness. State-run television and radio carry the ceremony live, and India’s many private news channels will also have days of live coverage related to the President’s visit.

The Obama administration recognizes the significance of the invitation and the moment (hence the acceptance of the invitation), as does Congress, which speedily confirmed Richard Verma as ambassador to India in time for the visit.

Some have wondered about the timing of the visit, i.e., why the president is taking off for India a few days after the State of the Union address, when they say he should focus domestically. Given that the Republic Day date is fixed, there was not much Washington could do about the timing of the trip.

Turning down an invitation wouldn’t have just been a missed opportunity, but probably set back the United States relationship with India. Moreover, rather than President Obama’s attendance, it would have been his absence that would have elicited criticism from Republican quarters. When it comes to India, the complaint of many in the GOP hasn’t been that Obama has done too much, but the opposite—that he should think bigger, do more. Senator John McCain, now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said as much in September.

This is why despite the timing not perhaps being ideal—the Obama administration might have wanted to plan a return visit later in his second term—the president made the decision to go to India. This won’t go unnoticed in India, particularly by Modi. It’ll definitely be a contrast to Russian President Putin’s 23 hour 15 minute dash to India—despite the Indian prime minister’s request to him to spend more than a day in India.

4. So, will this be all about the optics?

Firstly, optics do matter. Symbolism and substance aren’t mutually exclusive—the former can indeed facilitate the latter. This has definitely been the case in India-U.S. relations in the past. This trip, in particular, gives the United States and India an opportunity to feature and celebrate what they share: democracy and diversity. We will also likely see personal touches, highlighting the relationship between the two countries and the leaders. The Indian media has been reporting that the prime minister is looking to make some special gestures, not least to convey his appreciation for the welcome he received in Washington and to reciprocate.

But, while this trip will be optics-heavy—if nothing else, because the parade and the Taj Mahal give shutterbugs ample fodder—there will be substance. Some of this will be evident; some of it will take place behind the scenes.

The timing of this visit—in terms of how soon it comes after Modi’s visit to the United States in September—has presented both a challenge and an opportunity for those who “work” the relationship. In terms of opportunity, with this next summit, the leaders can build on the momentum generated from their first one. As an action-forcing event, it’s made the two bureaucracies focus on the relationship at a time when both governments are grappling with other foreign and domestic priorities. They’ve indeed already moved on a number of commitments made during the September summit. This upcoming visit will also be a chance for the two leaders to get to know each further and continue to establish a personal relationship that could pave the way for a smoother ride ahead and especially be crucial in times of crisis or difficulties. It’ll also give President Obama the opportunity to engage with other key stakeholders in the relationship, especially the business community and the Indian public.

However, given that this visit comes less than four months after the last one—months that haven’t exactly been quiet for either Delhi or Washington—it has also posed a challenge in terms of getting significant movement on the substance side and reaching more concrete agreements. Nonetheless, the two governments have been working overtime to make progress in key areas.

On the functional side, defense cooperation is expected to feature, with the potential renewal of the defense framework agreement on the table (the previous one was signed in 2005), as well as some progress on co-production and co-development projects under the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative. Economic ties—trade, investment (especially in infrastructure)—will be a key theme, especially with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and several business leaders also travelling to India. Half a day will indeed be devoted to the president and prime minister meeting with private sector leaders from both countries. Climate change and clean energy has been another focus area. While a deal as ambitious as the China-U.S. agreement is not expected (in recent months, India has indeed been emphasizing that it cannot be clubbed together with China), there might be some movement on this front. There is also expectation that there will be announcements related to the two countries’ Partnership to Advance Clean Energy, perhaps on the technology and investment front. Both sides have been working toward operationalizing their nuclear energy cooperation agreement, but as yet it’s not clear whether they will find a way out of the impasse in time for the summit (or, if the proposed solution will be feasible). Counterterrorism cooperation and homeland security are also likely to be discussed—though these are issues where details might not be too forthcoming.

Related to this, the two sides will also likely discuss the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the Middle East (including Iran and ISIL). The consultations on regional issues are likely not just to focus on India’s west, but also to its east—where they have identified stability in the Asia-Pacific as a shared interest.

There are indeed a host of other areas in which the two countries cooperate and if there’s a joint statement, we’ll get more details on related progress on bilateral, regional and global issues. Overall, there will be “deliverables,” but it’s not clear that there will be what the Indian media calls “big-ticket announcements.” It will be interesting to see if they issue a roadmap, laying out the agenda ahead for the relationship. On the whole, both governments have been actively managing expectations. But with two leaders who have surprised observers of this relationship before, there will be likely be unexpected things to write and comment about—whether those will be on substance or symbolism.

5. What’s in it for the United States and India? What’s in it for Obama and Modi?

Democratic and Republican administrations over the last decade and a half have indicated support for India, stressing that strengthening relations with that country is in U.S. interests. Hence, then national security advisor Tom Donilon put it bluntly in 2013, “we don’t just accept India’s rise, we fervently support it.”

The American investment in India has been predicated on at least three assumptions. For some, it has been the idea of India that has been important—a diverse, developing democracy that could be a partner. For others, India’s economic potential—as a market and as a source of investment and talent—has been what makes it attractive. For yet others, it has been India’s strategic potential, especially as a balance against (or contrast to) China.

For President Obama, this trip offers a way to consolidate India-U.S. relations. A strong, economically rising India and a close, stable relationship with it can help his domestic objectives (including economic ones), his rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, as well as his global goals. It can also be a key legacy issue for him: leaving his successor a transformed relationship with India.

For Prime Minister Modi, this relationship offers both strategic and political benefits. He has promised his people a strong, secure, prosperous, inclusive India that will be respected on the world stage. The Modi government sees the United States as playing a crucial role in helping them deliver on this promise. Thus, the prime minister has clearly stated that he sees the United States as “a principal partner in the realization of India’s rise.” And, bucking some in his own base, he has taken the relationship he found that the previous government had established with the United States and has run with it—speedily. This visit provides an opportunity to move it forward significantly, to enhance Indian interests, and for Modi to strengthen his position at home and his image abroad.

Crucially, however, both leaders will have to deliver—domestically and in terms of the relationship. If not, there’s a danger that disillusionment and drift will again set in. Differences might also crop up on issues like trade and climate change or countries like Pakistan, Russia and Iran that will need to be handled with care.