After being snubbed and refused a visa to the United States, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has now become a dear friend of the United States. India and the United States are now “natural partners.” President Obama’s visit to Delhi on the occasion of India’s Republic Day celebrations on 26 January 2015 was the scene not only of charting mutual strategic interests, but also of pure physical warmth. Narendra Modi is the son of a tea stall owner and as a child he sold tea to his father’s customers on the railway platform at Vadnagar. As these pictures show, he is still pouring out tea as the prime minister of India. People mock him for having begun life in humble circumstances as the son of a very poor man. But it goes to the credit of India’s political system, ridden as it is by constraints of caste, sect, prejudice and religion that a poor child belonging to the backward Ghanchi community grew up to become the prime minister of a country of over one billion people.
We look at Obama’s visit to India not only in the global perspective but also from Pakistan’s perspective. It has been repeated in all the despatches that India is the greatest democracy in the world and Obama’s visit is the meeting point of two of the world’s largest democracies. In Obama’s own words, they are “two great democracies, two innovative economies, two diverse societies dedicated to empowering individuals.”
India has held elections regularly since 1951, a remarkable exercise in management in which millions of people cast their votes in stages. Except for Indira Gandhi’s imposition of emergency in 1975, there have been no constitutional aberrations. But India has faced numerous insurgencies since independence, movements for self-determination cruelly suppressed, as in Kashmir, the anger of the Sikhs and the existing violent Maoist insurgency in two-thirds of the country. India has put down all these movements with brute force. One can’t say much about the condition of the downtrodden and native Indians in the United States either. India’s Left Front had protested against Obama’s visit.
Be that as it may, the United States is a superpower and India is a very significant player in world politics. Glitches in the implementation of the civilian nuclear deal signed between the two countries in 2008 were removed during Obama’s visit which unblocked millions of dollars in nuclear trade “and we are committed to moving towards full implementation” Obama said at his news conference in Delhi. A ten-year framework for defence ties and deals on the joint production of drone aircraft and other military hardware were produced and it was agreed that an Obama-Modi hotline would be set up.
In the joint statement issued after the talks, terrorism was on top of the agenda, seeking disruption of entities such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and the Haqqani Network. The leaders also demanded that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks should be brought to justice. “Terrorism remains a principal global threat”, said Modi and he urged that:
It is taking on a new character, even as existing challenges persist. There should be no distinction between terrorist groups.
Obama supported India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and stressed upon the need to tap India’s vast market and thereby help in promoting India’s future prosperity. India has invested generously in Afghanistan’s infrastructure and development and Modi spoke of India’s interest in helping to rebuild Afghanistan and supporting it through its political transition.
What does the Modi-Obama romance signify for Pakistan? Although Pakistan is a nuclear power, just like India, it was denied a civil nuclear deal with the United States, thus putting it at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis India in this field. India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group could have given it no comfort. It has sought access to drone technology in order to tackle terrorism, but that has not been forthcoming. Whatever its own lack of wisdom may have been in the past with respect to the Taliban, today it is a victim of their terror, as well as of US drone attacks and references to terrorist organizations, including the Haqqani Network point a finger at its seeming unwillingness to dismantle the Haqqani Network which is, really, an Afghan organization.
Pakistan has consistently opposed India’s bid for permanent membership of the UN Security Council, which Obama endorsed during his visit, because a country which has consistently violated UN Secretary Council resolutions, as India has done on Kashmir, does not qualify for membership of the Security Council. It has strategic political and cultural links with Afghanistan which will be affected if India becomes a major development player in that country. Indeed, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated, while Obama was in Delhi, that the US should play its role in maintaining the balance of power in the South Asian region.
Obama’s visit has been perceived as a counter to China’s growing assertiveness and presence in Asia. Although China was not mentioned by name, he and Modi reiterated the:
Importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.
To what extent India will be able to maintain this new “elevated” relationship with the United States remains to be seen. Perhaps the right-wing BJP government and its prime minister, who is also a member of the RSS, does not feel the same way about India’s historic defence and economic ties with Russia, in spite of Putin’s new assertiveness on the world stage. Pakistan, on the other hand, can take solace from the fact that when Obama was in Delhi, its Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif was on a crucial visit to Beijing which pledged anti-terror support to Pakistan. And China’s official newspaper cautioned India not to fall into the “zero-sum trap” being laid by the US and its allies to pit India against China.
But really, that bear hug from Modi and the holding of hands must have surely surprised Obama, though he took it with aplomb. Such effusiveness seems to be out of sync with diplomatic propriety. In the radio programme, Mann Ki Baat, in which both Obama and Modi spoke, the former referred to Modi as Mr. Prime Minister but Modi kept calling Obama by his first name, like a patronizing elder brother.
Recently, I read an article about Modi’s wife, Jashodaben Chimanlal, whom he abandoned soon after they got married, and kept their marriage under wraps until it surfaced during the 2014 elections. She lives somewhere in isolation with her brother, like a faithful wife, like a devoted Hindu wife, confident that some day he will send for her.