Obama Visit: A Masterstroke By Modi
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s first Prime Minister from the BJP, was far-sighted enough to declare in 1998 that India and America were ‘natural allies’ despite the then prevailing tensions over the nuclear issue. Modi now appears determined to translate Vajpayee’s sentiment into a durable partnership. The world, including America, watched with much awe the process that proved the mettle of a tea-seller-turned-CM-turned-Prime Minister of the world’s biggest democracy. Both Modi and Obama share some similarities. Both leaders caught the world’s attention when they trod the election path in their respective countries, and both had high hopes pinned on them. While Modi’s honeymoon period still continues as he stepped into the new office few months ago, Obama has a short stint before his tenure in the White House comes to an end. The emerging goodwill between the two leaders was not destined. Mr. Modi came into the office with a formidable piece of baggage, having been blacklisted by the United States government for nearly a decade over his alleged mishandling of the riots in the state of Gujarat, which he led at that time. American diplomats’ efforts to mend fences were late and awkward, and Prime Minister Modi was supposed to hold a grudge. But the meeting between the two leaders in Washington provided the turning point.
This time around, when Obama comes to India, with the quintessential visit to the embodiment of love—Taj Mahal—on his itinerary which was missing last time, the tension seems to have shifted places. Last time, Obama sought to put trade ties with India before politics. This time around, the order may be reversed to some extent, given the President’s considerably lowered charisma and tenure in his office. Meanwhile, it is also a fact that the real reason behind the two leaders’ personal relationship is the considerations of geopolitics. With the expansion of Chinese power into the Indian Ocean, American and Indian interests in the region are gradually converging.
Both leaders have met thrice already in the recent past—in Washington during a bilateral meet in September last year, in Myanmar during the East Asia Summit and in Brisbane during the G20 in November. But the latest visit will be an “important summit” meeting that will seek to give a more concrete shape to many of the decisions, outlined in the joint statement issued last year in Washington.
ECONOMY IS THE KEY
US Secretary of State, John Kerry, laid the groundwork for President Barak Obama’s visit to India, listing cooperation on investment, civil nuclear energy, climate change and anti-terrorism measures as focus areas, while winding up his two-day tour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state where he attended the Vibrant Gujarat Summit. Obama’s visit to India as chief guest of this year’s Republic Day function and trips by Kerry and other US senior officials aim at wooing India as a strategic partner and at winning greater access to the Indian market. American companies have been reluctant to invest because of the country’s stringent laws, such as those related to liability and intellectual property, including patents and copyrights. The US has sought to sharply increase trade with India, which stood at little less than $100 billion a year in 2013, and is likely to rise to $500 billion in coming years. India’s investment in the US has also surged from $3 billion to $9 billion. There could be progress on US-India civil nuclear cooperation, solar power and climate change when Obama visits India. The two leaders are expected to discuss US concerns about the liability from building nuclear power plants in India. Under a 2010 nuclear liability law, which stems from the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster, equipment suppliers are liable for damages from an accident, which, companies say, deviates from international norms that hold the operator responsible on safety issues. Foreign crises will also form a big part of the discussions between the two leaders—the turmoil in the West Asian countries, the rise of ISIS, the web-based recruitment of youth, the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation and China. All of these point at greater cooperation between the both countries.
Obama as the chief guest for India’s Republic Day parade—the first US President to be invited for the occasion—has great symbolism. The White House recognised the significance of this first-ever invitation and acted despite difficulties of scheduling. The President’s State of the Union address to the US Congress, typically in the last week of January, was brought forward so that Obama could be in the Indian capital. Obama’s visit is also an acknowledgment of the fact that the India story is resonating once again in the world and the Americans naturally want to be in front not behind other countries. The US administration has responded well to the new vibes coming out of official India despite being engaged in multiple foreign crises. Ahead of this trip to India, US officials described it as an “important message” to the world about the two nations’ commitment to realise the full potential of their relationship. For, “President Obama to be invited as the first US President to attend as the chief guest sends a very important message to the world as well as to the American and Indian people about our commitment to embrace the potential of this relationship,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said.
THE THREAT PERCEPTION
With the terror threats flooding in ahead of Obama’s three-day visit to India, the security forces have geared up security across Indo-Pak border and all such sensitive locations. BSF has already added a second line of defence at certain locations along the border to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of fog and infiltrate to the Indian side.
India, which has already witnessed massacre of at least 36 Sikhs at J&K’s Chittisinghpura area of Anantnag district during the former US President Bill Clinton’s visit in 2000, does not want to take any chance this time. The security has been tightened in the wake of terror threats that have started surfacing since the report of Obama’s India visit came out. The intelligence information warned that groups of terror outfits including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) may infiltrate the Indo-Pak border along Kathua and Poonch districts of Jammu & Kashmir with intention to carry out terror attacks ahead of the presidential visit. In addition to LeT, JeM also poses a major threat to India during Obama’s visit. The JeM, which declared 2015 a year of Inquilab-e-Jihad, has also directed its members to infiltrate the state to orchestrate terror attacks.
America has already sounded a warning bell to Pakistan, in somewhat a quirky development. America has minced no words when it instructed Pakistan that no untoward incidents (read terrorist attacks) should happen in India during the President’s visit. In simpler words, America has told Pakistan agencies that any untoward incidents that can be dubbed terrorism will be traced back to Pakistan’s soil and will have serious implications. After this warning, it seems, Pakistan has banned the Jamaat-ud Dawa (JuD) and the Haqqani network. The government had already directed the departments concerned to take immediate steps to freeze the assets of the banned outfits.
The Haqqani Network, founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, has been blamed for some of the most heinous attacks on the US-led foreign forces in Afghanistan. It was designated as a terrorist organisation by the US in September 2012. The US and India have both always considered JuD, run by Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, a sister organisation of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant outfit blamed for masterminding the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai.
DELHI TURNS INTO A FORTRESS
In the wake of the intel inputs, New Delhi has put ‘unprecedented level’ of security measures for the protection of the visiting Chief Guest. The scale of security will be far bigger—50,000 security personnel, 15,000 CCTV cameras, 3-day traffic lockdown in key south and central Delhi areas—than anything seen, even for other visiting US presidents.
Among the firsts in security arrangement are US satellites being deployed for watching Rajpath that hosts the VVIP podium. Also, for the first time, US Secret Service snipers will be posted alongside sharp-shooters from India’s National Security Guard at all relevant venues, including Rajpath and Maurya Sheraton, the Delhi luxury hotel President Obama will be staying in.
Around 40 specialist sniffer dogs—Belgian Malinois Shepherd dogs—from the K9 segment of the US Secret Service were flown down from the US to double-check the VVIP enclosure at Rajpath and other venues which Obama will be visiting. India, perhaps for the first time, has put into operation an Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AWACS) in Delhi to detect air threats in the no-fly zone. This is an airborne radar system designed to detect aircraft from very long ranges. US Secret Service members will also be guarding the podium on which India’s President Pranab Mukherjee, American President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be sitting. In the same vein of keeping as much of the arrangement as American as possible, President Obama will travel to the parade venue in his own ultra-secure vehicle, called The Beast, which is an armoured Cadillac limousine. The Beast is an explosion-proof heavily armoured vehicle fitted with a night vision system. It is a virtual shield capable of withstanding biochemical attacks and has its own oxygen supply mechanism. The seven-seater vehicle functions as a control room for the US President to remain in touch with the Pentagon and senior US government functionaries through video-conferencing or encrypted satellite phone communications. It is fitted with emergency medical equipment and has a bank of his blood type. The vehicle’s fuel tank, with a special foam coating, is armour-plated and its doors have eight-inch-thick armour plating. The car’s five-inch-thick windows are bulletproof. Its driver undergoes special week-long training at a secret service academy.
The masterstroke that Modi used in inviting American President to India on the day when the country celebrates its military prowess, and also commemorating the day when it turned a republic is something worth lauding. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to invite Obama, and the American President’s acceptance tell the scale and scope of the mutual understanding that appears to have emerged out of the meeting between the two leaders in September last year. Whether there are many breakthroughs or none, the fact that Obama and Modi are meeting again within a short span will keep the two countries focused and geared for progress.
By Nilabh Krishna