The presidential tweet, and the accompanying picture, conveyed it all—the end of awful stress, the sweet relief of victory. The three-word message—“Four more years”—announced to the world on Wednesday morning Barack Obama’s re-election to the White House. It did not take the Indian leadership long to respond. Congratulatory messages from both President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were dispatched within hours of the tweet going viral. The knife’s-edge contest between Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, had generated much interest in New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment. But now that the dust over the US presidential election has begun to settle down, questions are being asked on what Obama II means for India.
“Obama’s second-term relationship with India will start off on a more solid footing than his first,” predicts Karl Inderfurth of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. An indication of how well it kicks off can be seen within the next 10 days, when Obama and Manmohan meet at the East Asia Security Summit in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. This will be Obama’s first multilateral meeting after his re-election and he will take the opportunity of spelling out the role he sees for the US and its close partners in the region, including India, to maintain security and stability in Asia.
But, as Inderfurth points out, Obama did take some time to warm up to India after becoming president in 2008. His first year was spent in wooing China, cajoling Pakistan and keeping India out from his proposed security architecture in Asia. Then, of course, he did a quick course correction by not only visiting India but also hosting Manmohan Singh as the first foreign leader at the White House, and championing India’s entry as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in other major world groupings. There has been no turning back since then. For the remainder of his first term, Obama identified India as a key US partner, and also encouraged it to play a much more significant role in Afghanistan and in becoming a source of security and stability in Asia.
Democrats celebrate the victory in Chicago
MEA officials, in fact, say in a tone of neutrality that there is now a bipartisan consensus among the Democrats and Republicans that the US must have close and strong ties with India. But they acknowledge that Obama’s re-election would help in maintaining continuity. “It will be easier to pick up the threads from where we had left before the US polls,” says an Indian diplomat. He argued that had there been a Republican president in Washington, it would have taken the two sides months to get to know each other as well as the issues on the table.
According to Inderfurth, India is now seen by Obama as a ‘defining partnership’ for the US in the 21st century—certainly a more reliable and predictable one than China. He points out that the US recognises the important role India can play in a peaceful, stable future for Afghanistan, as it prepares for its security transition—not a departure—from Afghanistan in 2014.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institute, agrees with this view of policy. “Obama’s victory further cements the US-India strategic partnership which will face difficult challenges as NATO transitions to a residual force in Afghanistan and the drone war in Pakistan continues.”
Some others say Afghanistan, despite offering an opportunity to cement future Indo-US relations, presents its own challenges. As Lisa Curtis of Washington’s Heritage Foundation points out, “New Delhi and Washington will need to engage in a serious dialogue about the future of Afghanistan where they both seek to uproot terrorist structures, in order to pool their resources and reinforce each other’s policies and avoid working at cross-purposes.”
The Indian leadership will get a chance to fine-tune its approach to Afghanistan during Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s visit (November 9 onwards) to Mumbai and New Delhi where, apart from seeking investment, he would also discuss how peace and stability can be restored in his country.
Afghanistan, though important in itself, it is not the only issue that defines Indo-US relations. Several items dominate the wishlist on both sides (see infographic). Besides those pertaining to purely bilateral ties, there is the overarching geopolitical situation in Asia, where trade, energy, security and foreign policy all collide. “India is an integral part of the Asia pivot in that it shares the US’s democratic values, mutual interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and surrounding seas and a general desire to hedge against the rise of China,” says Curtis.
“Relations would certainly benefit much if India could step forward a bit more when asked by the US to shoulder greater responsibilities and not duck and weave when awkward questions such as Syria arise in the UN,” says Sumit Ganguly of the Indiana University in Bloomington. But it is unlikely that India would rush to take any hard decision that may have a negative impact back home. This may well be the norm, as the Indian leadership starts looking inwards in the coming days and avoids pursuing any policy that could be deemed controversial or done “under US pressure”. Many in India are predicting Lok Sabha elections before the term of the current government ends in mid-2014. Irrespective of whether the ruling Congress is looking at early elections or not, many hard decisions on foreign policy in general and relations with the US in particular, may now be kept for the future. Therefore, despite a likely push by Obama in his second term for stronger and closer relations with India, Indo-US relations may not move up to any dramatic level in the coming days.
Unless of course, Manmohan Singh decides to leave the Prime Minister’s Office with all guns blazing.
By Pranay Sharma in New Delhi and Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington
The story on the US elections, and its effect on India, made for uninteresting reading (The World Is Horizontal, Nov 19). The point is, four more years of Obama will not affect India in any way, for it is a growing economy, and is still a magnet for many US companies waiting to plunge into the huge, untapped Indian market after various reforms.
Xavier Albuquerque, Mumbai
Though the effect on India will not be huge, and though the term ‘leader of the free world’ for the US president has also become defunct, as the leader of the only superpower and its largest military, the American president still plays a pivotal role in shaping the global order. Therefore, the world watches.
J. Akshay, Bangalore
Obama presides over a superpower in decline, and will be more concerned with fixing economic problems back home rather than playing global supercop. For India, the fact that the US geopolitical focus is on Af-Pak is much preferable than it being on Indo-Pak relations. Of course, some of Obama’s poll rhetoric had Indians squirming—he talked about US jobs being outsourced to India. It is certainly true to an extent. We offer services, produce little and work for low wages. It’s tempting to outsource to us! India has to make the argument that as a result of our competitive wages the products we help create cost less. More people can buy them. Overall, businesses gain.
Meghana A., Newcastle-Upon-Tyne
The passion and the wooing phase is over. The natural allies are settling into an uneventful marriage.
To be fair, if one wants good relations with the Obama administration, then one is doing a great disfavour to oneself. I don't want to feel, that this particular President wants me to understand what his good vibes or wishes are.
Well ' Four more years' of Obama will not affect India more because India is in a favourable state of a growing economy, as its more of US companies who have been waiting to plunge into the country thanks to our FDi reforms. Surely Obama will come strongly at India because he as to stand upto his expectations of the second term given to him. Over all I hope the relationship between these two mighty nations will certainly bear fruit both ways.
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