President Barack Obama’s recent trip to India means a new chapter in ties between the United States and India, whose relations have often been strained. University Professor of Politics and Government Ali Riaz, who is an expert on South Asia politics and formerly a Public Policy Scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said the symbolism of the visit was good, but the two nations have a long way to go.
We can describe this visit as a “reset” of the relationship between the United States and India. It is a gesture that both countries are willing to leave the past behind and move to the next step.
The visit sent a message that the U.S. is ready to accept India as a major player in the global arena – beyond the region, beyond South Asia; in the Indian Ocean region. India is viewed as a check for the growing influence of China in the area. And I believe China received that message. Interestingly, we saw hardly any reference to Pakistan – a clear difference from Obama’s last visit to India in 2010.
The last day of his visit, Obama gave a speech geared not just to the Indian government, but to Indian society as well. It was a message that the world is now closely watching India.
India is a vast nation with more than 1.25 billion people, a growing economy and an increasing global influencer. With that growth comes not just power, but responsibility. India can decide to be either a bully or a role model. And President Obama was obviously trying to encourage India to become a role model of democracy with a conscientious, economic-development model.
In his speech delivered at New Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium, Obama addressed the human rights issues. We all witnessed the great bear hug between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Obama, but that does not sweep under the rug the rise of radical Hindu groups after Modi’s election. Religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians, are facing more and more belligerent rhetoric, and some recent events have been alarming. And, of course, India needs to understand the role of women in the 21st century. The incidents of rape there have spotlighted the attitude toward women that is disturbing for any country, let alone a country of emerging influence.
Climate change is another area where India needs to take a major role. Now it may seem odd for the U.S. to be lecturing on climate change. We are five percent of the population that consumes 25 percent of the planet’s resources, and have amongst us politicians who deny that climate change is an issue. But it is vital for growing economies such as China and India to understand their role in climate change. India is already the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter. There will come a day when presumably they will be using more energy than the established industrialized nations. They cannot ignore their role in the future, nor the importance of climate change. The President spoke of a $2 billion investment for renewable energy in India, and that will not come without expectations.
The visit to India from the President also spotlighted defense and trade. One of the key issues was the stalled civil nuclear deal. We are told that there has been some progress; but details are yet to come. One must understand that a country will always work in its best interests. Understandably, India insists that foreign nuclear suppliers, including the American companies, submit to Indian law. If there is an accident or “incident,” those companies must be held responsible. Current legislation shields them from direct victims, but not from the government, which remains an issue of contention.
As for defense, it is all well and good for countries to make deals that will boost the economy. They are described as modest because the deal will help co-production of smaller military products. But I have to ask myself, does the world really need to be making more weapons? I don’t think so.
President Obama’s visit speaks to the warming of relations between the U.S. and India, and the arrival of India on the world stage. For now, there are hugs and welcomes. This is a good move away from the past. But how it will impact the long-term U.S.-India relationship and the regional political dynamics is a whole different ballgame.