SOTT Exclusive: Obama's visit to India - BRICS nations working at cross purposes?

Obama namaste

© Official White House/ Pete Souza

President Barack Obama participates in a traditional greeting with President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi following a ceremonial welcome at Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi, India. January 25, 2015.

U.S. President Barack Obama made a 3-day state visit to India during the last week of January 2015. It was his second visit to the country, and he was the first U.S. president to be chief guest to India's Republic Day celebrations. India took precautions by increasing security, increasing no-fly zones around the capital from 30 km to 40 km, cleaning the city, and temporarily dislocating street vendors. Citing security reasons, Obama skipped being the part of the traditional parade and brought his own Beast (limousine).

Expectations from Obama's visit were low, though the media touted the chemistry between the leaders. Obama called India a 'natural ally' and gave warning to Pakistan against supporting the terrorists. He seems to have conveniently 'forgotten' his own country's role in funding terrorist groups in Pakistan.

Deals signed during the visit included $4 billion of funds to boost new initiatives, an offer to support India's ambitious solar energy target, joint manufacturing of four relatively modest military products, exploring the development of two more high-end technologies, and setting up a task force for jointly developing three smart cities with a mandate of preparing the road map within three months.

Obama's visit caught the attention of Russia and China. Russia sent its foreign minister in advance for military cooperation. Chinese media called it "superficial". Pakistanis viewed Obama's India visit with irritation. China urged India to take steps to satisfy the standards of the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group. India is the only member of the group that has not signed on to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a 189-nation treaty set up four decades ago to prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Now, Obama's visit is over. Will the relationship last?

While that may be, it did not mean that Obama was able to coax Modi into supporting the US position on what it sees as an even more egregious attack on international order - Russia's activity in Ukraine.

As Modi stood by stone-faced, Obama used a joint press conference of the two leaders to assail Russia's latest actions in Ukraine - which he said range from arming separatists in their renewed "aggression" to Russian training of the anti-Ukrainian forces - and to threaten yet another round of Western sanctions.

Just a month ago Modi lauded the "friendship of unmatched mutual confidence" between India and Russia in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And just last week he told visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu that their two countries enjoy a "time-tested special and privileged strategic partnership."

Modi, who has rebuffed US efforts to see India back off its close ties to Russia, insists that Russia has legitimate interests in Ukraine that the world cannot simply ignore.


Indian officials say that, rather than seeing some deep contradiction in Modi's embrace of both Obama and Russia, Americans should see the two perspectives as a declaration of the foreign-policy independence India will covet as it deepens its global relationships.

The good news there for the US, these officials say, is that as it guards that independence, India won't be forming alliances with any other powers either.

Every year, India had a chief guest who is a foreign leader at the Republican day celebrations. Putin was the chief guest in 2007 and Sarkozy in 2008. It never got the attention it got this time. Until now, India has reserved the invitation for the leaders of nations with closer relations to India. So the invitation from Modi to Obama came as something of a surprise, with Obama trying to muster support for his 'Make in India' initiative. Obama reminded the nation of its religious intolerance. Does this mean India will move towards the U.S.?

Analyst Satish Misra said the newfound friendship could translate into stronger trade and other economic ties, but it did not mean Modi was beholden to Washington.

"Modi is not the kind of leader who is going to succumb to pressure from the United States on geopolitical or other issues," Misra, of the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think-tank, told AFP.

"There are no (diplomatic) camps any more. India will do what is best for India. It's the political reality for everyone."

Indian media widely covers U.S. mainstream news, whereas Indian news coverage in U.S. media is rare. There is exponential growth in migration of Indians to the U.S. during the last two decades and India is the world's leading recipient of remittances. It is unlikely that Modi would anger the voters by distancing himself from United States.

A remittance is a transfer of money by a foreign worker to an individual in his or her home country. Money sent home by migrants competes with international aid as one of the largest financial inflows to developing countries. In 2013, according to the World Bank Report, $404 billion went to developing countries (a new record) with overall global remittances totaling $542 billion.


A majority of the remittances from the US have been directed to Asian countries like India (approx. 66 billion USD in 2011), China (approx. 57 billion USD), the Philippines (approx. 23 billion USD), Bangladesh (approx. 21.5 billion USD) and Pakistan (approx. 16 billion USD)

After Obama's visit, India sent its foreign minister Sushma Swaraj to China and Russia for enhancing "political trust' while rewarding the current Ambassador to the U.S., S. Jaishankar, with a foreign secretary position for implementing Modi's idea of having President Barack Obama be chief guest for India's Republic Day celebrations. Modi is expected to visit China in May 2015. Experts say Modi will be careful not to alienate China, whose investment India desperately needs as he tries to boost India's economy.

BRICS nations working at cross purposes?

Obama's visit to India is the latest in a list of incidents going on between nations of the strategic triangle (Russia, China, India). India has territorial disputes with China in the North, Pakistan in the West and an uncertain relationship with Sri Lanka in the South. Indian media widely covers the news of territorial incursions and has very high potential to change political fortunes. Here is a short list:

July 22, 2014: The Indian and Chinese navies were involved in a face-off in the disputed South China Sea. A Chinese warship confronted an Indian naval vessel as it left Vietnamese waters, but the Indian Navy has denied the reports.

September 19, 2014: Chinese premier Xi Jinping visited India and offered $20 billion investment in infrastructure projects over next 5 years. This visit came under the backdrop of reports that Chinese troops were trying to construct a temporary road into Indian territory across the Line of Actual Control (the de facto boundary) in the disputed Ladakh region. Both leaders agreed to settle disputed matters amicably.

October 27, 2014: Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung visited India. China cautioned India on the Vietnam overture. Ignoring China's frowning, India offered to sell Brahmos short-range cruise missiles to Vietnam, offered to modernize Vietnam's defense and security forces, and agreed to share civil nuclear cooperation with Vietnam. Russia is the co-developer of Brahmos cruise missile and approved the exports sale.

November 3, 2014: Days after Vietnam PM Nguyen Tan Dung's visit to India, a Chinese submarine, Changzheng 2, again docked at the Colombo port, sparking "enormous concerns" within the Indian government about the intentions of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. China called the incident routine stop-over.

November 8, 2014: China requested Modi to visit the APEC summit at Beijing as an observer state. China had been the main obstacle to India's membership before. Modi rejected the offer citing a busy schedule at G20 and SAARC summits.

November 20, 2014: The Russian defense minister made a 'significant' visit to Pakistan. Earlier, Russia concluded a 'politically approved' deal to supply Mi-35 'Hind E' attack helicopters to Pakistan, putting New Delhi's defense links with Moscow under strain. Putin is expected to visit Pakistan later.

India had long been Russia's 'exclusive military technical cooperation partner'. However, Moscow has reportedly downgraded that status to 'preferred partner' after India diversified its defense procurements and increasingly began relying on Western sources for meeting its hardware requirements. Russia has, meanwhile, reviewed its policy of selling military equipment to Pakistan.

After multiple high-profile accidents with Russian MIG aircraft, India looked for an alternative to Russia MIG aircraft. India decided to buy 126 French Rafayalle aircraft for $12 billion to replace its shrinking fleet. But the deal was stalled by the $8-billion price increase and French companies' unwillingness to manufacture them in India under the conditions of agreement. The next round of talks is expected to happen in March 2015. If this deal doesn't come through, India is planning to improve the Russian-designed Sukhoi Su-30MKI according to its needs and manufacture them at their HAL factory in Bangalore.

December 11, 2014: Putin made an unplanned one-day visit to India and signed $100 billion worth of deals. This includes deals worth $40 billion in nuclear energy, $50 billion in crude oil and gas and $10 billion in a host of other sectors, including defense, fertilizers, space and diamonds. India is the world's leading producer of cut and polished diamonds. China is expected to give tough competition to India in the near future and owns diamond mines in Africa. Russia offered to supply the raw diamonds from its mines to India.

January 18, 2014: Reuters claimed that Sri Lanka's now former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had expelled the station chief of India's intelligence agency in Colombo after accusing him of working against his government and supporting the opposition. India denied the claim. New Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is expected to visit India on Feb 16th during his first visit abroad, which is considered as a change in country's policy towards India.

January 21, 2014: Four days ahead of Obama's visit, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Shoigu visited India to foster cooperation in military and counter terrorism. He praised military cooperation between the two countries, adding that in the future, Russia and India will jointly develop a fifth-generation fighter aircraft and undertake several naval projects.

Are these incidents necessary readjustments to the fast-changing geopolitical situation, or a symbol of BRICS nations working at cross purposes? Only time will tell.

Impact on local elections?

In a stunning reversal of electoral fortunes, Modi's BJP lost the Delhi state elections, which it was expected to win easily. BJP appointed non-religious, non-political (until recently), former super-cop-turned-activist Kiran Bedi as a Delhi chief ministerial candidate to counter the main opposition party AAP and was leading the opinion polls until a week before the elections. AAP chief Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, now political adversaries, are both former civil servants and Magsaysay awardees. Kejriwal was in the Indian Revenue Service while Bedi was the first woman Indian Police Service officer. And, both were once part of the India Against Corruption movement of 2011, which was led by activist Anna Hazare.

During the December 2013 Delhi state elections, AAP emerged as a second-largest party (second to BJP) and formed a minority government with the conditional support of the non-religious congress party. But the AAP government resigned within 50 days for its failure to pass an anti-corruption bill, leaving the state under the rule of the central government. This is the first defeat for Modi after his election as a Prime Minister of India and had comfortable victories in the states of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, and (to some extent) in Kashmir assembly elections. This is a surprise defeat for Modi (and to the nation) who had motivated the businessmen, media, middle class and poor people alike, elevating him to level of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Modi had been careful not to evoke the memory of communal wounds which would alienate majority secular voters by reminding them of the country's economic priorities. BJP tried to impress the voters by narrating Obama's visit as a Modi's diplomatic victory, while AAP countered it by accusing BJP of politicizing the Obama's visit and blaming BJP for not inviting AAP's leader (former Delhi Chief Minister) to the Republican day parade.

BJP has grossly underestimated the Indian voter

Modi's silence on Hindutva hotheads helped the issue to use up all space in the media so that no one asked basic questions about his government's performance through eight months. Modi rode the communal and the secular horses simultaneously. A cosmopolitan electorate in Delhi has obviously seen through the game plan. The entire gain from the PR exercise of hugging the Barack Obama and first-naming him through formal press conferences was negated with the US president driving some truth home on India's growing religious intolerance under the new political dispensation. Worse was Obama's U-turn in releasing the huge financial aid to Pakistan.

As pundits analyze this electoral defeat in India's smallest, but high-profile, state along their party lines, religious sensitivity seems to have played its role. The only high-profile foreign dignitary who had the distinction of reminding the Indian population of this sensitivity (before the elections) goes to Barack Obama (of course, after the British Empire).

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