The Slatest

Why Obama’s Visit to India Is Such a Big Deal

Get ’em while they’re hot! Kites printed with the portraits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama, on sale in Hyderabad on Jan. 7, 2015.

Photo by Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images

What a difference a year has made for the U.S. and India. In January 2014, U.S. diplomats were being expelled from New Delhi amid widespread public outrage over the treatment of an Indian diplomat in New York, marking the worst crisis in relations between the two countries in years. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi, then-chief minister of Gujarat and a candidate for prime minister, was still banned from entering the United States on suspicion of complicity in atrocities.

But this weekend, President Obama will head to India, becoming the first U.S. president ever to make two visits to the country while in office and the first American ever invited to be “chief guest” at India’s annual Republic Day celebration. The symbolically important visit follows a productive and cordial couple of months in the often fraught U.S.-India relationship since Modi’s election in May.

It’s surprising that a relationship that had frayed under former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—a mild-mannered, Western-educated economist—has been repaired under Modi, known, at least until a pre-election centrist rebranding, as a hard-line Hindu nationalist. But close observers say Modi’s embrace of Obama was inevitable, given his pledges to dramatically modernize and develop India’s economy.

“Modi is a supreme pragmatist,” says Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University and expert on Indian foreign policy. “He wants to get certain things done and recognizes the strategic importance of the United States. He may still harbor some personal animus, but he’s not going to let that get in the way of attracting more investment from the United States or building a more robust security relationship.”

The big breakthrough came last May, when, after years of being denied a visa to visit the U.S., Obama invited him to Washington. (Modi’s visa ban stems from the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which more than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed. Modi, who was chief minister of the state at the time, was accused of failing to stop the riots or even helping to provoke them with his rhetoric.) When Modi did finally come to the U.S., he was rapturously received by a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden and met with the president at the White House. He was also met with protests throughout his visit, and some protocol watchers in the Indian media interpreted it as a snub that he was not invited to a state dinner.

If Modi was insulted, he brushed it off, inviting Obama to sit with him at the Republic Day parade just a few months after their last meeting. The invitation of a U.S. president “breaks a kind of symbolic taboo,” says Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “India, even though officially nonaligned, has tilted away from the U.S. for most of its independent history, even with the end of the Cold War. Millions of people will watch this, and it’s sending a message.”

Dhume says the speed with which Obama has reciprocated Modi’s overtures has been striking. In addition to the concrete issues the two leaders may discuss, for Obama the trip is an opportunity to demonstrate that while the administration’s planned “pivot to Asia” has been somewhat derailed by attention-sucking events in the Middle East, it can still make progress on important relationships. 

The visit will also help Modi distinguish himself from the Indian National Congress party, who ruled India for most of its independent history, promoting a foreign policy of nonalignment. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party “isn’t necessarily pro-American,” Dhume says, “but it doesn’t have that baggage. They don’t have that much ideology on foreign policy and don’t feel the need to demonstrate that India’s not turning into a U.S. vassal.”

The Congress Party also isn’t as reflexively anti-American as it once was, but “those instincts haven’t gone away entirely,” says Dhume, “and in the last few months of the Manmohan Singh government we started to see them creeping back a little.”

Those instincts were on full display during the scandal surrounding Devyani Khobragade, a deputy consul general at the Indian consulate in New York who was arrested on visa fraud charges for paying her nanny far less than the legal wage stated on her visa application. Khobrogade’s treatment—she was arrested by the NYPD while dropping off her daughter at school and strip-searched before being released on bail—was a national scandal in India, and the Congress Party government, then heading into elections, played up the nationalist furor to maximum effect, removing security barriers from outside the U.S. Embassy and threatening to remove the diplomatic immunity of American officials.

One year ago today, that would have been the only thing anyone would talk about,” says Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, in a conference call with reporters. “It was a substantial rupture in the relationship for several months, and the normal kinds of bureaucratic meetings that happen between the two countries weren’t taking place. That’s no longer the case. We’ve seen an uptick in conversation and diplomatic dialogue.”

Dhume says Modi’s political base is less receptive to appeals to anti-Americanism. “In many ways Modi’s constituency is the most naturally pro-U.S. constituency in India,” he says. “These are a lot of young people living in cities. They tend not to view the U.S. through an ideological lens.”

Ganguly also notes that Modi is “deeply beholden to the Indian business community, and particularly some very large conglomerates who supported him in the election and constitute a very power constituency in his party. If he cannot woo the world’s most powerful economic partner, then he has a problem.”

This, then, raises the question of whether the Obama visit will result in any concrete announcements or is just an enormously important photo op. One area where real movement is possible is climate change. We’re unlikely to see anything as dramatic as the U.S.-China emissions pact announced last year—India, which is still heavily reliant on coal and considers itself well behind China in terms of economic development, has been extremely reluctant to commit to capping its emissions. But Modi has announced ambitious solar energy plans, and the two leaders agreed to cooperate on promoting renewable energy during their White House meeting in September. There’s also been speculation that the visit could include an announcement of U.S. investment in India’s nuclear industry.

On trade, the U.S. and India already reached a breakthrough in November, and Modi will be looking for the U.S. to make good on pledges to increase investment in the country.   

Defense issues will no doubt be central to the talks. India has ordered more than $10 billion in weapons from the U.S. over the past decade as it has sought to diversify its supply away from its traditional military ally, Russia. Modi hasn’t entirely cut Russia out of the picture. Putin was in town last month, but the change in suppliers is likely to be reflected in the military hardware paraded before Modi and Obama in New Delhi next week.

As a symbol of U.S.-India cooperation, the visit is also a signal to audiences in Moscow, Beijing (India and China are locked a contentious and occasionally violent border dispute), and of course Pakistan. Ganguly notes that the U.S. has been putting less emphasis on relations with Pakistan as it has drawn down its presence in Afghanistan. India has also been pushing to increase its economic and political presence in Afghanistan, much to Pakistan’s chagrin.

“The Pakistanis will be quite upset about this visit and will watch it very closely,” says Ganguly. “The days when an American president felt compelled to also visit Pakistan when he went to India are over. The Pakistanis have to come to terms with that, but they’re not going to like it.”