Barack Obama in India
Out in the open
Even without a dramatic breakthrough, ties between India and America are warming
Still, setting aside the demands of India's excitable media, in general the expectations had not been high that Mr Obama and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, could quickly transform bilateral ties. The two leaders had met only four months earlier in Washington, DC (with another meeting in between, in Myanmar). That left little time for their underlings to negotiate tricky matters of substance, for example over tackling climate change, nuclear energy, co-operation in defence, a bilateral investment treaty and more. A joint statement issued by the two governments contained a wealth of warm words, a long list of examples of recent co-operation and descriptions of a shared vision, but nothing eye-popping.
Representatives of both governments have made the arguable case that the symbolism of the trip, and the warm language used by both leaders when they addressed the press on January 25th, are substantial in themselves. Mr Modi proved remarkably engaging towards his guest, addressing him familiarly as Barack and emphasising the importance of "chemistry" between leaders in establishing warm ties between countries (he did not mention that it would be better still if they were nurtured better by institutions, as well). Mr Obama spoke of how Mr Modi was treated like a "Bollywood star" when he visited New York in September, meaning it as praise. And he was enthusiastic about the prime minister's energy and ambition, praising his agenda for economic reform. The American president said patience is needed, since a "new partnership" will not be created overnight, but both leaders also spoke convincingly of the "natural" and "global" nature of their countries' close relations, based on shared values. That, by implication, is a message to China—that these two countries have a shared interest based in democracy and human rights. Give Mr Obama some credit, too, for sitting outside through two hours of rain and Delhi smog, to watch a parade of mostly Soviet and Russian military hardware. The highlight of the parade was a group of soldiers wearing tremendous moustaches who played tubas while riding camels. The leader of the free world is a busy man: that he set aside Monday morning for this show is a measure of his enthusiasm for India.
How significant the enthusiasm turns out to be may depend on where you are sitting. A decade ago those assessing an American presidential trip to India would have carefully analysed the relative significance of American attention given to Pakistan. On this trip the most troublesome neighbour has been utterly ignored (aside from joint references by the leaders on the need to fight terrorism in all forms); nor does anyone wonder whether Mr Obama is going to mention Kashmir. Progress, in other words, is more creeping than explosive. Mr Obama has set the precedent that an American leader should make multiple trips to India: this is his second, and not necessarily his last. The leaders spoke of making such visits more frequent, and thus normal. High-level American visits to India have always come pregnant with expectations of a breakthrough, largely because they have been so rare, and because relations have traditionally been cool. It would be a big measure of improvement if visits (including those of Indian prime ministers to America) were to become routine, and if those expectations for sudden change were to decline.
As for the specific areas of negotiation, the progress looks partial. Much trumpeted has been an apparent deal to make it possible for American suppliers (in addition to plant operators) to invest in Indian civil nuclear energy without being held unreasonably liable in case of a future industrial accident. In fact, however, what has been achieved is a step towards this happening. America appears to have softened its demands to scrutinise supplies of nuclear fuel to Indian plants. But India still needs to produce a "memorandum of law" to spell out how India's existing liability law (from 2010) does not expose investors to unreasonable risk of prosecution in case of an accident. A proposal from India's government to set up a large insurance pool, to spread the risk of any future liability, also appears insufficient if it does not protect individual suppliers from unlimited civil legal action by future victims. Depending on the responses of the nuclear firms’ legal teams, it could yet be necessary for Mr Modi to force changes to the 2010 law through India's parliament—a daunting political prospect, given that he lacks control of the upper house.
Another area where there has been partial progress is in tackling climate change. It had been hoped, ahead of a big global summit on the subject this year in Paris, that America and India would announce a big push on clean energy and thus a commitment from Mr Modi that India would limit emissions of carbon dioxide (as China did last year in a bilateral deal with America). Instead there were more warm words and promises of as much as $1 billion in American finance for solar-energy plants in India, as the country heavily expands its production of energy through renewable sources. India has ambitious plans to reduce its reliance on imported oil, and to diversify its production of electricity (too much of which comes from coal-fired plants), but this is not the same as making a firm promise to limit carbon emissions.
A third such area is in the promise of future co-operation in defence, including some experimental efforts to collaborate in the production of equipment. A "Defence Technology and Trade Initiative" will test four examples of collaboration on military production, establishing whether future joint production might be possible. So far, it is unclear what this will amount to. In the context of a joint "vision" for American and Indian security co-operation it could become the basis of significantly closer military ties (especially as India diversifies its supply of military hardware away from Russia). But as with the nuclear and climate talks, the significance will become clear only later.
That Mr Obama is cutting short his visit by a day is not taken by India as a snub. The president will visit Saudi Arabia for the funeral of its king, on January 27th, missing little more than a visit to the Taj Mahal. Assuming no last-minute breakthrough, he leaves India after a modestly successful trip that should reassure both sides that further progress—probably something more substantial—will yet come. Relations between the two countries have been improving steadily for years, despite a setback after an Indian diplomat was arrested in New York in 2013. As this visit shows, that warmth is now increasingly out in the open.