Modi-Obama bonding: The new normal high in India-US relations

obama-modi-teaFirst-name bonding, “Barack and I.” Tete-a-tete over tea, “chai pe charcha.” Bear hugs, hand-holding and a walk around the rose garden, “chalein saath saath”.  Footfalls echo in the memory… Well, one is not talking about puppy love of besotted lovers, but a tightening embrace of the world’s two largest, engaged democracies in an all-embracing agenda whose reverberations are going to be felt in the years to come.

Sparks fly, Shared Effort

In Delhi’s deepening chill, sparks flew and lit up a moribund nuclear deal and shone a new path of “shared effort, progress for all,” as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama firmed up an ambitious template for re-igniting the defining partnership of the 21st century and walked the talk to deliver substantive outcomes. The new normal in India-US relations, which was construed to mean habituation to sub-optimal engagement, has morphed into the “new normal high.” The big-ticket outcome of the Modi-Obama summit talks on January 25 was not just the nuclear deal, but the decisive shedding of ambivalence and diffidence, which will lead to the interlocking and intermeshing of the two engaged democracies across the full spectrum of economics and geopolitics.

New Peaks, New Horizons

obama-modi-walkWhat it all adds up to is that the plateauing phase of the India-US relations is over, and it’s now time for upswing and acceleration as the leaders of the two countries found a win-win formula to commercialise their trailblazing nuclear deal, unveiled four path-finder projects for co-development of cutting-edge weaponry and agreed to set up a hotline between them.

The other important outcomes that followed the meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama included the decision to resume negotiations on Bilateral Investment Treaty, a potential game-changer in transforming trade and investment ties, and a congruence of perspectives on a global climate deal that promises clean and green life for their citizens as well as that of the world.

Beyond show and symbolism: Making of Big Deal

President Obama’s maiden visit to India as the chief guest at the country’s Republic Day celebrations has turned out to be historic and give lie to the sceptics who had tended to be dismissive of the presidential visit as merely symbolism and showmanship. The headline outcome – the closure of the nuclear liability issue and the sealing of administrative arrangements for commercial implementation of the nuclear deal that transformed the hitherto estranged democracies into engaged democracies – has removed the festering issue out of the way, freeing up diplomatic energies for acceleration of ties in other critical areas, including technology transfers, defence, trade and investment, energy, climate change, public health, education and skills partnership.

obama-arrivesThe resolution of the liability issue is indeed “breakthrough diplomacy,” the title of the eponymous booklet brought out by India’s foreign office at the dawn of the New Year, and underlines that with the shared political will and executive intervention, no issue between the two strategic partners can stall the momentum in the relations for long. The deal came about after a give-and-take authorised by Prime Minister Modi and President Obama. Mr Obama instructed his negotiators to waive off the intrusive inspections of nuclear material used by India from third countries and accepting New Delhi’s long-standing demand that Washington will not ask for anything more than inspections agreed to in the India-IAEA agreement. In an imaginative move to address liability anxieties of the US, New Delhi obliged by agreeing to set up a national insurance pool which will act as a risk management strategy for both suppliers and operators. With this broad agreement, one can expect the US companies to firm up arrangements for setting up nuclear power plants in India that is expected to enhance the share of clean atomic energy in India’s overall energy mix.

Pathfinders: Showing the Way  

obama-modi-presser3Another breakthrough has happened in the area of defence – the sunshine sector in India-US defence ties – with the two countries identifying four pathfinder projects for co-development and co-production of high-tech weaponry. Under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI, the four pathfinder projects identified for co-development included the next generation Raven Minis UAVs, roll on and roll off kits for C-130, mobile electric hybrid power source and Uniform Integrated Protection Ensemble Increment

In the economic arena, with a  widening area of strategic convergence and the brighter prospects of economic reforms, a point endorsed by President Obama, the target of multiplying bilateral trade five-fold to $500 billion appear doable, with the two countries deciding to launch  negotiations on Bilateral Investment Treaty.

Climate has changed

On the climate change, there was predictably no China-like deal, but with the two leaders underscoring their resolve to work closely for a successful global deal in Paris and the US companies participating in India’s solar mission, the two sides are moving forward to a deal, which could be a game-changer.

Nobama-modi-republic-paradeothing superficial

A wary Beijing has predictably and gratuitously reacted, terming the Modi-Obama talks as superficial rapprochement. That seething resentment is a back-handed tribute to what Mr Modi and Mr Obama have managed to accomplish in their talks lasting nearly three hours, with the leaders finding New Delhi’s Act East policy and Washington’s Asia rebalance as mutually reinforcing. This big-picture geopolitical perspective was reflected in a US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region.

Chemistry and Bonding

obama-modi-radioOver and above these substantive outcomes and progress in diverse areas, what emerged clearly from the Modi-Obama meeting in New Delhi was an emerging chemistry and symmetry between the two leaders. It’s easy to dismiss all that “chai ki charcha” and Obama’s “Mera Pyar Bhara Namakar” (my love-filled greetings) as feel-good TV-friendly gestures, but the personal equations, so clearly on display, promise to script a fresh, bright chapter in the history of India-US relations. This was reflected in a host of outcomes, but most notably in the decision to hold more frequent summit meetings and operationalise a hotline between the leaders and the NSAs of the two countries. The drift and stagnation, marred by serious misunderstandings, one saw in the last few years of the Manmohan Singh government could have been avoided if there was more direct communication between the two leaders.

Only Connect & Communicate

obama-modi-thumbsupNarendra Modi has proved to be an astute and natural communicator, and he has memorably underlined the importance of communication in eloquent Hindi.

“Barack and I have forged a personal friendship. There is openness with which we talk, we can talk comfortably over phone, joke with each other… This chemistry has not only brought me and Barack close, or Washington and Delhi nearer, but also the people of the two countries,” Modi said, with Barack looking on, and smiling. Obama quipped that “Modi gets less sleep than me,” triggering a volley of laughter.

New Normal High: Way to Go

Mr Obama also described India and the US as “natural partners” many a time in his address.

Talking openly, resolving differences, joking with each other, and smiling naturally. This is the way to go for natural partners, and this hopefully should be the new normal high in the India-US relationship. No time for Mr Modi to lose sleep; the big deal is done.



Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.