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The President and The Prime Minister: a 21st Century Bromance

U.S. President Barack Obama has been getting along well with conservatives lately – only these conservatives are 7.5 thousand miles away.  On January 26, 2015, Mr. Obama was the first U.S. president to be the chief guest at India’s famed Republic Day celebrations.  In fact, Mr. Obama is the first U.S. president to visit the world’s largest democracy twice while in office.  The significant uptick in relations between the two nations comes a year after a massive diplomatic row that saw American law enforcement officials arrest an Indian diplomat in New York for visa fraud.  This ebb came five years after Mr. Obama signaled to the world that the US-India relationship is a priority to him when he hosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the first state dinner of his presidency.  However, it seems that Mr. Obama needed a new counterpart with a new government on the Indian side to really bolster the relationship – enter the recently elected Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his Bharatiya Janata Party led government.

Mr. Modi’s vision of India differs from the historic role the non-aligned nation has played.  He doesn’t see India as a cautious country that keeps to itself.  Instead, he sees India as a global power not handcuffed to a foreign policy that doesn’t look beyond traditional foes, Pakistan and China.  Mr. Modi has been busy visiting and hosting many foreign leaders in the first year of his premiership.  Mr. Obama’s “pivot to Asia” strategy was in need of such a leader – and he bounced at the opportunity.  Mr. Modi, too, sees the importance of this relationship.  He even broke official protocol by being the first person to receive Mr. Obama with a hug on the New Delhi tarmac.

The seeming genuine friendship between the two leaders is strange considering Mr. Modi’s past relationship with the United States.  In 2005 he was denied a diplomatic visa to the U.S. and his existing tourist/business visa was revoked by President George W. Bush’s State Department.  The denial came from claims that Mr. Modi did not do enough to stop communal violence that saw Hindu nationalists slaughter Muslims in the State of Gujarat when he was Chief Minister of that state.  The State Department employed an underused law that denied a visa to any foreign official “who was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”   Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(2)(g).  It was so underused that Mr. Modi was the only foreign official to have ever been denied a visa based on this provision.  However, Mr. Modi seems to have let bygones be bygones.  For the first time in recent history, as Mr. Obama stated, “[T]he stars are aligned to finally realize the vision of India and America as true global partners.”

Nowhere is that more true than in the defence sector.  For years, American officials have been hammering their heads against an incalcitrant Ministry of Defence, formerly headed by Mr. A. K. Antony.  Mr. Antony was known for halting many defence acquisitions due to a fear of corruption.  With a new government in India, the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), started in 2012, can come to fruition.  The DTTI was an initiative that looked at India as a strategic defence partner to the United States.  One of the goals was to move the U.S.-India defence relationship, from that of a seller-purchaser, to one of mutual partnership and co-production.  Until now, the DTTI has not been effective.  As of 2013, 70% of India’s defence equipment was imported.  This creates immense security problem that would devastate the country as it is surrounded by conflicts that could easily spill in from Pakistan and China.  This is the remnant of a historically substantial limitation on foreign direct investment in the Indian defence sector.  Mr. Modi’s cabinet, in last year’s budget, increased the FDI in the defence sector from 26% to a whopping 49%.

That increase is not the only news that will allow the DTTI to prosper.  On the American side Ashton Carter has been confirmed as President Obama’s Secretary of Defence.  Mr. Carter, when he was the Deputy Secretary of Defence, was one of the brains behind the DTTI because he saw India as the United States’ natural defence partner in Asia.  He proposed that the U.S. and India develop some defence systems such as the “Sikorsky/Lockheed Martin MH-60 Romeo multi-role helicopter; the Raytheon/Lockheed Martin Javelin missile; a scatterable mine system; and the Mk-45 127 millimetre rapid-fire naval gun.”  While Mr. Antony was hesitant on the U.S.-India relationship, Mr. Carter moved Washington away from its cautious attitude towards India.  He also proposed that both countries join together to create the world’s best anti-tank missile – the FGM 148 Javelin.

Mr. Modi’s talents do not end there.  Mr. Obama has a geopolitically savvy counterpart.  Mr. Modi’s Asian indulgences have been very strategic.  He has been cozying up to one of America’s main allies in the continent – Japan.  The Prime Minister’s visit to Japan last September allowed him to strike another genuine friendship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – both exchanging birthday wishes via twitter and phone calls.  Mr. Modi is also developing a relationship with Israel, the likes of which the two countries have not seen before.  In fact, India has announced it would procure the Israel Aerospace Industries made Barak-1 missile.  Additionally, India has bought 8,356 Israeli Anti-Tank Guided Missiles and 321 launchers.  Mr. Modi may be showing China that India will not back down for a quest of dominance over Asia, or more realistically, he may be showing Mr. Obama that the world’s oldest democracy’s natural ally on the continent is the world’s largest democracy.

The U.S.-India relationship has been through many phases in the last few years.  It has had its sad and angry phase, manifested by the arrest of Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade.  It has had its humorous phase, manifested by Congressman Curt Clawson mistaking two brown skinned American government officials for Indian officials.  But now, it seems as though the relationship has matured to a phase where both sides see the mutual advantage of partnering with each other.  While the old guard may not approve of the bromance between Messrs. Obama and Modi, it seems that both leaders seem unbelievably comfortable with each other, signaling a turning point in U.S.-India relations.


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