Opinion: Substance and symbolism - Modi and Obama make a new start

Indien Barack Obama in Neu Delhi 25.01.2015

A year ago, India was ruled by a tired Congress Party led by an aged and distinguished prime minister who had simply run out of ideas. Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, was planning to lead the opposition Hindu nationalist BJP into the elections on the strength of his economic achievements in his home state of Gujarat.

Indian Premier Narendra Modi and US President Barack Obama have reached a series of groundbreaking agreements likely to reshape relations between New Delhi and Washington in the years to come, writes DW's Grahame Lucas.

However, Modi was shunned both at home and abroad and was even denied a visa to the United States in 2005 because of his role in the 2002 communal violence in his state, which left over 1000 people dead. Today, just nine months after his triumph at the polls, Modi is playing host to none other than the President of the United States. Barack Obama - on his second visit to India - has thus become the first American President to be guest of honor at the Republic Day celebrations in India.

It is his third meeting with Modi in just four months. Obama was received in India with a much photographed bear hug from his new ally before taking tea with his host. They made an unlikely couple: The hardline Hindu nationalist and the Democrat President. Nevertheless, Modi has skillfully exploited every opportunity to demonstrate his new friendship with Obama. Not surprisingly, many commentators wondered out loud to what extent Modi - with a finely tuned public relations operation behind him - had just symbolism in mind or also substance.

The answer is both. Since coming to power in May 2014, Modi has worked hard to put India on the path of modernization. A blueprint is gradually becoming more visible. After visiting some of India's neighbors and Japan, he paid a successful trip to the United States. His diplomacy has centered not only on demonstrating India's desire to lead in South Asia and to extend its influence into Southeast Asia as well. Modi also wishes to establish India's place at the top table of international diplomacy and to attract foreign investment to his country.

"Make in India" has become the central plank of Modi's bid to bring work to the millions of young Indians who voted for him last year. US-Indian trade is now valued at 100 billion USD a year. Five times more than ten years ago. Modi wants to increase it by the same margin by 2025. Against this background, the prime minister clearly believes that by moving closer to Washington India will profit from the opportunities offered by increased trade, inbound investment and technology transfer.

But this scenario does not go well with the Indian establishment's ideological anti-Americanism, a strong desire to demonstrate Indian independence in all areas where Washington's support was not needed. The obvious exceptions were China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Modi's achievement has been to win this domestic battle and to convince the political elite that the world's two largest democracies can both profit from a closer relationship. Obama's visit dovetails perfectly with this political strategy.

Thus, the photo opportunities and the substance of this visit speak the same language. Obama has been feted like no US President before him. And ground-breaking deals have been made. India and the US have extended a defense pact geared to meeting the challenge posed by China, their major rival in the region. Significantly, the two sides committed themselves to move ahead on a deal on the civilian use of nuclear power originally signed in 2008.

Apparently, US concerns over India's liability rules in the event of a nuclear accident have been overcome. Moreover, Obama has scrapped the US demand that it be allowed to monitor nuclear material purchased by India. Interestingly enough India's concern about US ties with its arch enemy Pakistan appears to have received scant attention, another novelty.

Clearly Modi's ambition for India and his relations with Washington have prevented US-Pakistan ties from becoming a stumbling block. But in one regard, Modi did demonstrate where his red line is. With a view to India's traditionally close relations with Russia - Putin was in Delhi just weeks ago - Modi refused to comment as Obama condemned Moscow's intervention in eastern Ukraine.

This aside, Modi has done what his predecessor failed to do: He has established a personal rapport with the US President which has enabled him to take a step towards realizing his vision of India as a superpower in the latter half of the 21st century. The erstwhile pariah from Gujarat has become a statesman by brushing the past aside and achieving the possible.

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