3 key takeaways from Obama’s tour to India

Though US President Barack Obama’s visited India as the State guest for Republic Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ensured substantial work was done on the foreign policy front too. That PM Modi was already taking a different approach to foreign policy was evident right from his swearing in. However, the broad contours of India’s reach was less evident so. This was also due to the experts’ fixation on Pakistan being part of every foreign policy decision of successive governments. Here are the 3 key developments that I think are critical:

Pakistan is best ignored

PM Modi’s stated focus on economic revival of India’s fortunes must have given us a hint. Pakistan is not a big economic partner for India. At best, they were a noisy neighbour. There was not a single word uttered on Pakistan during the entire visit of President Obama. Of course, mainstream media continued their rants.

However, my guess is that Modi has understood that Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif is not serious of improving relations. Exchanging pleasantries during the SAARC summit aside, there has hardly been any noteworthy developments reported. When a Pakistan cannot support India’s request for an International Yoga Day, it is foolhardy to expect anything sensible from them.

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PM Modi also seems to employ the “Reagan doctrine” to tackle Pakistan. Former US President Ronald Reagan substantially increased US military budget and thus showing the will and initiated the process of domination of America. This effectively changed the balance of power between Russia and US. Reagan also looked any altercations in other countries through the prism of US-Russia relations. Thus, Reagan convinced the West European partners to limit trade with Russia which resulted in squeezing Russian economy.

PM Modi is similarly systematically wooing and winning over erstwhile allies of Pakistan. With Obama not even mentioning the customary – “India and Pakistan need to resolve Kashmir issue bilaterally” – is a coup of sorts for PM Modi.

Carrot and Stick approach towards China

PM Modi did concede more to Obama in the joint statement when chiding China’s adventures in the South China Sea. NY Times reported that Modi was really irked that Chinese military ventured into Ladakh when their President was visiting India. This may only be partly true. PM Modi knows too well that China is only one of the few countries which can really invest in India in a big way, thus helping him in his economic agenda. Precisely for this reason, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will be dispatched to Beijing in the first week of February and PM Modi himself will be visiting Beijing later this year.

With the Chinese economy on the downward trajectory, as predicted by various agencies, India presents a huge opportunity for China to make a significant splash. Getting the Chinese leadership active on the economic agenda would be a mutually beneficial venture for both. Now that the government has decided to invest heavily into expanding the rail network in Arunachal Pradesh, there are bound to be hiccups. This is where Modi is hedging his bets with the US and Japan to keep the Chinese politburo on its toes. The joint statement from PM Modi and President Obama also called for continuing the “India-US-Japan Trilateral Dialogue”. This will be an interesting event to watch out for.


Prior to the visit, one concern in the foreign policy media was about if Modi would request Obama to cancel his plans of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, there has been no talk about it during or after the meetings. On the contrary, I think, India will be more actively engaged in the next phase of Afghanistan story. I would not be surprised to see Indian boots on ground, to compensate for the US withdrawals. There are two reasons for that:

  1. US has been asking India to be more responsible and active in foreign affairs, if it harbours hopes of being the permanent member of the UN Security Council. Modi may consider Afghanistan to be his ticket to that seat.2. Being a member of SAARC, it helps India to have all its member states.
  2. Being a member of SAARC, it helps India to have all its member states by its side for any eventuality. Being active in Afghanistan, strategically, may alter Pakistan’s terrorist havens on its Western border.

There have been other noteworthy news viz., economic partnership, 3 smart cities collaboration, et al. There has also been one sour point for me. Even if there was appreciation of India opening up FDI investment in defence sector, I do not think much will happen here. There is huge gap in understanding of IP related issues and I do not see technology transfer very soon. Assembling of parts or joint ventures may be the way forward till all issues are ironed out.

Nevertheless, PM Modi did charm India with the invite to President Obama and various reports in NY Times does suggest that US has indeed been, positively, taken aback by the active engagement from India’s side. Another step towards Achchhe Din.

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