The Obama-Modi bromance, what did it actually achieve?

Avinash Gavai

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now perfected the art of geopolitical optics, arguably better than any current leader in the world. It manifested itself with glorious, high-energy élan during United States President Barack Obama’s trip to India late last month, where Mr. Modi actually broke official protocol to personally greet America’s commander-in-chief at the airport he flew into, and then proceeded to embrace him on the tarmac with a bear hug and <gulp> actually call him by his first name!

With his (self-declared) 56-inch chest, flashy suits that bear his name, and a gift for oratory, Mr. Modi’s penchant for theatrical flair is undoubtedly new in India. The innovations may upset the prudish sensibilities of the ageing mandarins making up the Indian political and cultural establishment, but they are appealing to Generation X and Y Indians who have derived their propensity to glitz and glamor from Bollywood.

And the undisputed truth is that this populist Prime Minister is largely responsible for the rapprochement with the most powerful nation in the world a year after the Devyani Khobragade diplomatic SNAFU threatened to torpedo relations to their lowest point since America overtly took Pakistan’s side over India in a monumental war fought in 1971.

It would however, still be premature and indeed a mistake to embellish any perceived successes. Syrupy optics and sound-bites, though useful in framing a cosy narrative, will only carry the burden so far. The joint radio broadcast between the new best friends Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi, televised live through carefully placed cameras certainly made for good copy.

But the Devil, as always, will poke his pitchfork out through the inconvenient details. Mr Obama’s personal investment in seducing India’s leader and the latter’s own efforts, have not really translated into nuts-n-bolts tangible achievements till date.

Incidentally, the influential Washington Post conservative columnist Charles Krauthmammer recently came out with a surprisingly bullish endorsement of India when during a radio talk interview he said that India is “is probably our strongest, most stable, most remarkable, democratic ally on the planet.

Firstly, on the military part of this alliance, some progress has been made. There has been considerable pundit talk of Obama using his much-vaunted ‘pivot to Asia’ policy to contain China’s growing military and political clout in part by helping India augment its defence capabilities. This process hasn’t yet gained any significant amount of traction–the exact wording of the now-renewed 10 year Defence Framework Agreement (the official document detailing the modus operandi of bilateral military cooperation) remains unknown, and the agreed upon co-production on 4 modest military projects only exists on a tentative, embryonic level. And if the history of Indian military procurement has taught us anything, even modest projects could unravel at any given moment.

On the sensitive nuclear agreement, the Indian government finally seemed to concede that America needs its domestic interest groups concrete gains from the landmark nuclear deal kicked off by former president George W. Bush in 2005. This will of course entail US companies having the green light to actually produce nuclear reactors and related infrastructure in India. Consequently, the Indian government has agreed to shell out over $120 million towards a liability fund. The Obama administration in turn, acceded to India’s aggressive demand that end-use inspection of its facilities be dropped. This is a hugely positive step. But as with defence, it’s not the game-changing agreement everyone was hoping for or expecting after all the hype.

For Obama however, the jewel in his India crown was always supposed to be a concrete deal on climate change, something on the lines of the monumental deal he had reached with China a few months ago. But an intransigent Indian side made only a few concessions when it came to lowering carbon emissions at least. Targets on climate change were not forthcoming, for example, although many expected them as an outcome. The failure clearly annoyed an American president who is now pulling out all the stops in securing his legacy in his final two years—Mr. Obama specifically mentioned it during his final engagement in India.

So fundamentally when it came to the core areas of negotiation and further cooperation the Obama/Modi bromance fell short of expectations.

Which in itself is fine, after all, not every high-level summit needs to be a transformative beast, despite the best of intentions. The inherent idiosyncrasies of two very different countries with different priorities and different approaches to executing policy goals will always present a formidable challenge. The problem, however, is that the Modi government doesn’t seem to fully appreciate or care about the nature of the lacklustre results.

Let’s go back to defence cooperation first. A prominent Indian journalist, Mihir Sharma has noted in a recent column that  “in various off-the-record chats before Air Force One landed, both Indian and American officials were hopeful that three proposed agreements that the United States calls ‘foundational’ would finally, after an 11-year delay, become reality. These agreements on logistical, intelligence and communications cooperation, if signed, would supposedly relax the legal constraints in the United States on certain high-technology transfers to India, and possibly permit Indian access to US satellite networks, for example.”

In a very uncertain and unstable neighbourhood (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal aren’t exactly the poster children for brotherly love and stability), it would have been in India’s strategic interest to sign off on a deal, but the regressive and antediluvian dinosaurs in the previous Indian government just wouldn’t let it happen. As far as the public is concerned, these agreements have never been formalized. Perhaps there is an implicit understanding that a future ratification would be included into the current framework agreement after hashing out the details. If so, then Mr. Sharma adds, “as usual Mr Modi promises and promises and promises, even as he under-delivers and under-delivers and under-delivers.”

On the nuclear deal, M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador and analyst, said the “breakthrough” touted by  both parties may well end up being more of a diplomatic success than a commercial one

“It was a sensible thing because the next time Modi meets Obama they don’t have to talk about something they are not going to resolve,” Bhadrakumar said. “They set it aside. It was creating bad air.”

The future of one of the most important bilateral relationships in this world has to include certain core features: a commitment to the defence relationship with America that is in India’s strategic interest; a deal on climate change that is simultaneously both pragmatic and idealistic, but one that makes targets publicly known and works to achieve them; and making it clear that changing laws that are a hindrance to business is a priority. This Indian government knows what it has to do. So why hasn’t it done so yet?

Despite the repeated bear hugs, and whimsical chai and coffee tête-à-têtes, it’s become quite apparent that it wasn’t Obama or his entourage that Mr. Modi was seeking to impress — it was his people, the people at home. The very fact that public debate in India has focused on the Obama visit’s admittedly flashy optics, rather than the finer points of gritty policy detail, shows he’s still an undisputed champion when it comes to courting domestic opinion.