Obama's Indian Odyssey

There is excitement in the air. Friends of the US in India and vice versa are all agog over  US President Barack Obama's forthcoming visit to India. Obama has expressed happiness about being the first US President to be visiting India twice. His three-day visit this time around is in response to Prime Minister Modi's invitation to be the Chief Guest at India's Republic Day celebrations - another first for an American President. While the acceptance of the invitation by the US President has been widely acclaimed by political observers in both the countries as a diplomatic coup on the part of Mr.Modi who is still in the first year of office, Modi's political detractors have tried to steal the thunder out of the acclaim by making no secret of their consternation; they have expressed dismay at the invitation of the US President as a sign of meek submission by India to the supremacy of the world's only super power and the consequent loss of India's image as a leader of the developing Asian and African countries. The big ticket visit has been dismissed by some quarters in India as a mere gimmick for political mileage by a wily Narendra Modi with an eye on the Delhi Assembly elections which are round the corner.

In either case, while berating Modi for trying to cozy up to the US, his detractors have conveniently overlooked the economic and diplomatic gains which are likely to accrue for India and the geo-political and regional security ramifications that the visit is expected to have in the context of China's expansionist policies and designs on gaining maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean.

Why the Excitement over the Visit

US Secretary of State John Kerry has lauded Modi as a leader who has built up a reputation by building efficiency, trying to take decisions faster by means of streamlining democratic processes. While doing so, he gave an insight into the change in the US perception of the Indian leader following the latter's baptism by fire at last year's national elections as the undisputed leader of the country. The US denial of visa to Modi before his party swept the elections is now a forgotten subject, with both the sides having prudently buried the hatchet. The two countries have since moved closer to each other for their mutual benefit.

The excitement over the visit is not without reasons. For one thing, the world's oldest and largest democracies are natural partners and are optimistic about further cooperation in the future. On the sideline of his visit to the US in September 2014 in connection with the UN General Assembly session, Modi had talks with Obama. During the meeting, the two sides identified areas of further cooperation for building on the deep ties already existing between the two countries. It would be pertinent to bear in mind the fact that Modi's visit had also given inkling to the peoples of the two countries into how they could realize the extraordinary and boundless potential of their relationship. As US Vice President Joe Biden pointed out, the two nations believe that they are not shaped by history but history is shaped by them.

Contrary to the premature writing off of Obama's visit as a lame duck president getting away from it all by sections of US political observers, a confident and assertive Obama is expected to do some serious business while in India, if his latest State of the Union Address is anything to go by.
Enthused by positive developments like decreasing fuel prices and creation of job opportunities in the domestic market besides home coming by US soldiers abroad in a year of what he described as "economic turnaround," an upbeat Obama told his countrymen that the ''shadow of crisis'' that had dogged America since 9/11 had passed and ''a greater future is ours to write."  From all available indications, the visit promises to be a "Black Swan event," a term coined by scholar-statistician and risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Tayeb to describe the disproportionate role of high-profile, difficult-to predict developments, beyond the realm of normal expectations.

And Prime Minister Modi's brainwave of inviting the US President to the prestigious National Day celebrations to leap-frog India-US ties is quite likely to prove a master stroke, which it was intended to be. After all, no previous Indian government had thought of doing so, much less have a US President visit India a second time.

Scope of Progress in Bilateral Cooperation

Although the visit is not of a substantive bilateral category, the whole gamut of India-US bilateral relations would be discussed at talks between Modi and Obama. Secretary of State John Kerry who was recently in India for attending the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, had outlined the scope of further progress in bilateral cooperation by stating that India and the US could work together in areas like fight against terrorism, combating climate change and pushing the boundaries of science and technology besides boosting bilateral economic growth and creation of opportunities for the youth of the two sister democracies.

Hailing India as a country of enormous energy and power, and making no secret of how impressed he was by what he had seen during the Summit, Kerry averred that the US would work towards Prime Minister Modi's vision to supplying electricity 24/7 to India. On his part, the newly-appointed US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, has affirmed that the US continued to be hopeful of implementing the civil nuclear agreement to fulfil the PM’s goal of providing electricity to all Indians by 2020.

Kerry was happy to note that the volume of US investment in India had already grown from a paltry $2.4 billion to a modest $28 billion. There has already been much progress in defense ties, with US defense sales to India topping $10 billion, and bilateral trade that had grown five-fold to $100 billion in the past decade. The two sides are hopeful of it growing another five-fold to $500 billion by 2020.

John Kerry also said that his country was committed to work with India to reach a landmark climate change agreement in Paris at the end of 2015. The US is hopeful of a commitment by India to cut carbon emissions by 25% from the 2005 levels. This, however, is a matter of much deliberation by the two sides.

Boost to India-US Defense Relations

The visit is also expected to strengthen defense relations between India and the US. Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar has said that expansion in the Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI) with the US was on the cards.

Asked what India expected out of the visit, Parrikar said, "Having good relations with powerful friends solves a lot of problems."

As part of the DTTI, co-production and co-development of two critical defense systems -- drones and equipment for the C-130 transport military aircraft built by Lockheed Martin -- are reported to be on the table. Obama and Modi are also likely to discuss US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan and its implications for India's security, tensions on the India-Pakistan border and cross-border terrorism. During Modi's visit to the US in September last year, both countries had agreed in principle to extend their defense agreement for another 10 years. The framework is likely to enhance the bilateral defense partnership by stepping up joint military exercises and more in-depth intelligence-sharing and maritime security among others. It will also include a drive against terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Security for Obama

Unprecedented levels of security measures are being put in place in Delhi which has been put on the highest alert and converted into an impregnable fortress against possible terrorist attacks from both land air. A multi-agency control room will monitor the surveillance operations in every area of the city. The teams manning the control rooms set up to watch footage of nearly 15,000 CCTVs will include American security personnel who have already arrived with their dog officers.

There will be a seven-layer security ring around the enclosure on Rajpath for the Republic Day parade to be witnessed by Obama. The airspace over the area would be monitored by a radar to be specially set up. Anti aircraft guns have been placed at strategic locations.

Besides the 80,000-member strong Delhi Police, additional 20,000 paramilitary personnel and armed police forces from neighbouring states including Haryana, Rajasthan and India Reserve Battalions have been pressed into service to ensure fool-proof security in the capital especially around Rajpath.

US Warning to Pakistan

The US has asked Pakistan to ensure that there is no cross-border terror incident during Obama's visit and subtly warned of "consequences" in case of any such attack which is traced back to that country.

Details of the Visit

From available indications, Obama is to arrive Jan 25, hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Jan 26 would be busy with the morning spent on the Republic Day parade and the evening for the At Home reception hosted by President Mukherjee.

He is likely to address a town-hall style meeting in an educational institution, like he did in Mumbai during his 2010 visit, according to some reports. Then Obama and Michelle would fly down to Agra for a visit to the "wonder in stone" before flying out of India.

Secrets in Store

Major details of the visit having thus been taken care of by the two sides, what remain as  closely guarded secrets are  whether the President and the First Lady will be accompanied by their daughters and whether Michelle Obama will don sarees while in India - details no less significant for the scribes and the Indian public  than official business!