Was Obama the Best US President for India in its 70 Year History??
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
Now that Barack Obama has just left office and is no doubt miserably plotting out his post-presidential life in Trump’s America as a private citizen, it’s time to assess the legacy of his relationship with India.
Like that between any US president and India, this relationship game was pretty complicated. There were ups. There were definitely some downs. There were times fraught with peril. And just like in a cricket match, there were two distinct batting partnerships: Obama/Singh and Obama/Modi (which incidentally, has the holiest of Hindu words OM as its acronym), each of which had its own unique flavor. Through all of this, one thing is inarguable: Obama was the best US president for India, its people, its development, and its advancement in the nation’s 70 year history. It’s not even a close competition.
Getting There. Any discussion of Obama’s legacy vis-a-vis India must begin and end with one remarkable fact: Obama is the first president in history to visit India twice while in office. The below figure shows the number of times each one visited India since “Ike” in 1958, which I just learned was the first of the official American head of state visits to New Delhi. There have been only 6 since.
Looking at this chart, a few interesting things come to light; Kennedy, LBJ, Ford, Reagan, and H.W. didn’t even bother to visit India. Reagan had eight whole years to pay his respects to the world’s largest democracy, whereas the others had less time, in all fairness. Kennedy was assassinated early on. Johnson and Ford became presidents by default via assassination and political corruption, respectively. Nixon, the only one of these presidents to (sort of) threaten India militarily with Task Force 74, actually did swing by. Obama not only visited twice, in 2010 and 2015, but arrived as the chief guest at India’s 2015 Republic Day parade, the first US president in history to receive this honor from India.
Meanwhile, Barack and Michelle Obama chose to host Manmohan and Gurshuran Kaur Singh for the first official state dinner of the entire Obama presidency, cherry-picking the Indian Prime Minister over leaders from other close allies including the UK, Canada, Germany, France, etc. in 2009. While state visits in either direction are partly symbolic shows of pageantry, they do help to grease the wheels for real, substantive work to get done. It is clear that Obama, Singh, and Modi all directed their staff and agencies to work together and advance the cause of friendship.
Good Trade. The pulse of any bilateral relationship is the amount of trade conducted between the two nations. While the governments certainly cannot take all of the credit for these numbers, and even less so the heads of state, the vibrancy of the private sectors of both nations depend heavily on government providing some nudges in the right places, while not getting in the way too much.
US-India trade has been on a healthy upswing when it comes to both goods and services, and around the middle of the Obama administration, official statistics from the US Department of Commerce show that total trade crossed the $100 billion annual threshold. While this is dwarfed by, say, US-China trade totaling $659 billion in 2015, a $35 billion upswing in five years still isn’t too shabby. Go back a little further to 2004, and the US-India trade total was only $12 billion. There have been major hiccups, including significant trade wars that dragged on and played out at the WTO, and ongoing battles over intellectual property but we can expect bilateral trade to continue rising in the future.
Unprecedented Defense Cooperation. Perhaps more important than trade advances, another clear victory in the US-India relationship took place on the military front. After all trade between two countries halfway around the world depends on open and secure sea lanes, airways, communications, and a relative amount of peace. Some military cooperation is essential to keeping the goods moving.
In 2015, a surprising event took place. The Indian Navy, Indian Air Force, and government-run airline Air India answered an urgent call for help from Washington, DC in Yemen, by helping evacuate US citizens among others along with the Indians who were stuck in that war and terrorism infested country without any US military assets in the area immediately available to respond. This is the first time we could think of that the Indian military participated in rescuing Americans in a third country. While the US media mostly neglected this dramatic development, plenty of grateful praise was heaped upon India by the Obama administration and the evacuated Americans. This event did not happen in a vacuum. It took place after years of military cooperation, which made it possible in a highly dangerous situation to trust.
The two nations in 2016 signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), the first such agreement between them in history, and highly tailored for India’s sensitivities towards any sort of formal alliance, which smacks of colonialism. The US and Indian defense establishments have been distant for most of the last 7 decades. Now thanks to the LEMOA, they can officially share fuel and communications, ports and bases, cooperate in cyberwarfare and humanitarian operations, co-develop aircraft carrier technology, and even build US military equipment such as the Marine One helicopter used for presidential transport, as part of the Make in India campaign. Much of the credit for this unprecedented “strategic handshake” between the United States and India in the last two years must go to Obama, Narendra Modi, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, a noted longtime friend to India, and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. In fact, the Obama/Carter Pentagon has been the friendliest of any to India, including kickstarting the only country specific “rapid reaction cell” tailored to India cooperation. All this despite India not being a mutual defense treaty ally such as the treaty members of NATO.
Meanwhile, US-India joint military exercises and training exchanges have ramped up. The two nations’ air forces, armies, special forces, and most prominently, their navies are building powerful relationships through increasingly complex exercises such as Yudh Abhyas and Malabar. Malabar is now a permanent annual deep-ocean exercise that as of recently also includes Japan. While these exercises aren’t explicitly meant to threaten any other nation, it’s quite clear that China and Pakistan have taken note, and have been spying on them with a dose of concern. Speaking of spying, India and the United States are now jointly monitoring the movement of Chinese submarines and other assets in the Indian Ocean. The US-India naval partnership is now, in our estimation, the most powerful naval partnership in the world.
All of this means that India can now continue developing into an economic and military powerhouse right behind China, unhindered, without needing to worry too much that the hostile neighbors surrounding it, especially BFFs Pakistan and China, can convincingly halt this rise while America has its back. Meanwhile, the United States gains a partnership in Asia to help counterbalance China. Before Barack Obama came into power, this business had not been settled.
Nobody questions that it’s settled now, even after a new US administration has transitioned in.
The Personnel Front Indian leaders couldn’t possibly say nicer things about the previous Defense Secretary, Ash Carter. But he wasn’t alone. Others among Obama’s appointees, including US Navy Admiral Harry Harris, Jr., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal worked tirelessly on India’s behalf at Obama’s direction, and all of them spent time in India with their counterparts, business leaders, non-profits, and school children.
But the jewel in the crown for Indians everywhere was Obama’s appointment of one of our own, Rich Verma, as the US Ambassador to India. The first Indian-American to ever occupy this prestigious role, Verma moved the ball across the goal line since his appointment in September 2014. The US-India relationship finally turned the corner for the first time after almost 7 decades of drift. Imagine in this devastatingly polarized time, that his confirmation was unanimously approved by the US Senate, a sign of respect from both Republicans and Democrats for Verma’s long diplomatic career. In New Delhi, Verma shepherded a dizzying array of initiatives on behalf of the United States, including on the longtime bugbears, nuclear energy cooperation and climate change cooperation. India rightly believes that it’s unfair for the United States, which has been leading the planet’s defiling and environmental demise for centuries before India was even a country, to dictate environmental austerity on India. The United States responded with financial and technological assistance in areas including solar energy. US nuclear suppliers are now active in helping India build up its plant capacity after many years of disagreement and inaction, especially on liability concerns. This is important, because without India’s participation, there is no hope to reverse climate change.
All of this aside, when a brown man appointed another brown man to lead the relationship with India, India sat up and took note, proud to be dealing with its native son across the table. Many other Indian-Americans were given prominent roles in the Obama administration, finally bending toward being in line with the community’s achievements outside of government: Surgeon General Vivek Murthy faced a brutal yearlong confirmation battle largely due to the NRA’s dislike of his calling mass shootings an American epidemic, but was appointed anyway; Ajit Pai was appointed an FCC Commissioner (and is now the new FCC Chair); and Aneesh Chopra was the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Nisha Biswal was promoted at State, as mentioned before. There are many others.
Tired of Pakistan’s Games Much as I loved visiting Pakistan and the Pakistani people, the US government has been growing exceedingly bored and tired with the Pakistani government’s dangerous games. These include providing disgraceful succor to Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists who have harmed or intend to harm both US and Indian interests. When the Obama administration showed the courage to eliminate Bin Laden without informing the Pakistani government, it proved to India that the longstanding US policy of fierce courtship with Pakistan was on the rocks. The US-Pakistan relationship (by the way, “us-pak monitor” would be a very interesting site!) has been the most intractable problem in the US-India relationship until recently. Now that Pakistan’s games have largely removed the country from US favor, and with withdrawal from Afghanistan US troops no longer rely on Pakistani ports and supply lines, it created a stategic opening for unprecedented cooperation between Obama’s America and India with less concern for Pakistan’s feelings. This could of course change, but I haven’t seen good signs from Islamabad in this regard. Pakistan has been curling deeper and deeper into China’s warm, welcoming, but costly embrace.
The Worst Moments It wasn’t all wine and roses in the US-India relationship during Obama’s presidency. The darkest stain was the 2013 dustup over Devyani Khobragade, the consular officer at the Indian Consulate in New York who was arrested for underpaying and mistreating her domestic help. Both sides completely bungled this. It somehow turned into a major international incident, bringing out all that was wrong in the US-India relationship, like Washington’s heavy hand and India’s deep insecurities and mistrust. The incident caused the cancellation of numerous high-level meetings, the halt of major projects, and a spiteful war of words between the two nations. Nobody came out of it looking good from either the US government or Indian government, all of whom utterly failed to resolve the crisis even after it escalated to greater and greater heights for multiple months. It was all shameful and could have been easily prevented, as I’ve written before, with a single, quiet, closed door meeting between friends. Instead, we got amateur hour from both sides, and witnessed diplomacy at its worst.
There is no doubt that Khobragade’s superiors should have shut her behavior down to start with; then when they failed to, the United States should have worked out a deal to quietly deport her, under the radar, with Indian cooperation. Instead, she was arrested and publicly shamed and treated somewhat roughly in detention, like many who spend time in American jails. India swiftly retaliated in a number of ways, such as removing traffic barricades near the US Embassy, revoking US diplomats’ duty free liquor privileges, issuing calls to arrest the domestic partners of gay US diplomats in India from shockingly high levels of Indian government, and violent anti-US riots. None of this should have happened, and we can blame both the Obama administration and Singh administration for it.
Then there was the brain-dead Modi visa ban. It might be hard for some to remember, but current Indian Prime Minister Modi was totally banned from visiting the United States at all by the US Congress due to a little-known and bizarre law on religious freedom for a whole decade before assuming national office. This visa ban was enforced as a result of Modi’s terrible management at best, and condoning at worst, of Hindu-Muslim riots that caused the deaths of more than 1,000 people in the state of Gujarat while he was Chief Minister. While Modi’s performance during the Gujurat riots constitute his worst days as a leader and a human being, the US visa ban was stupid and targeted, and did not apply to any other foreign politicians who have done so many worse things. In fact, Modi was the only one targeted by this law. Many believe it was a plot to please Pakistani lobbyists. In this case as well, nobody came out looking good, and unnecessary resentment was caused toward the Indian people. While Modi became a head of state, and therefore earned a bullet-proof passport allowing him to go anywhere, the resentment among many Indians has continued. Obama’s administration should have tried to put an end to it.
The Obama-Modi (OM) Years On the flip side of that, the two-and-a-half years of the Obama-Modi partnership have been so productive that most people can be forgiven for forgetting the visa ban even existed. Today, the US-India relationship is firing on all cylinders, and credit should go to Modi as well as Obama. The two hit it off early on in a heady and unashamed bromance for all the world to see, and continued to grow closer both as friends and as enterprise partners. Their praise of each other in various other venues was copious and sincere.
Some of the diplomacy between the two men was transcendental. In Time magazine’s 2015 issue on the world’s 100 most influential people, Obama took the unusual move of personally penning Modi’s entry, “India’s Reformer-in-Chief.” There was of course Obama’s seat next to Modi at India’s Republic Day parade. That entire trip began with a breach of protocol, as Modi waited for Obama on the airport tarmac and gave him a famous hug right off of Air Force One (pictured). There was also the Mann Ki Baat radio show, Modi’s weekly address to the Indian people, where the Prime Minister quite casually called his guest by his first name, and implored millions of listeners to follow the example of “his good friend” Barack who was lovingly raising two girls, with no son, and if the most powerful man in the world can do that, why couldn’t Indians give their daughters equal respect? There was also Obama’s speech at North India’s Siri Fort, which was unforgettable for its full-throated defense of women’s rights, in an era during which Indian women continue to suffer a heap of indignities, from low pay, poor medical care, abuse in the home from husbands and in-laws, and rapes and gang-rapes on the streets, often without justice. This speech was so powerful, and created such a far-reaching debate in the media and political establishment, I have no doubt that it made a difference.
Then there was the first Obama-Modi hotline, or 24/7 secure line of communication set up between Washington and New Delhi in a sign of the prestige being given by both countries to one another. At launch, this was India’s first and only hotline, and only the fourth for the United States after the UK, Russia, and China. Media outlets reported that it was one final phone call from Obama to Modi that sealed a flailing India’s decision to sign the Paris climate change agreement. There were also 9 separate one-on-one meetings in just the short period when both Obama and Modi were in power.
The Future? The United States and India have turned the corner. This means that the relationship has advanced to the point where it is unlikely for the progress to be completely undone under any new administration. While Trump has business interests in India, and has even said that the two countries “are going to be best friends,” a statement beyond anything Obama said, Trump is all over the place, and his policies are unpredictable. However, observers of the bilateral relationship can take heart in knowing that Trump’s obsessions with Islam, Mexico, NATO, and Russia do not interfere with any of India’s core interests. We are still bullish on the US-India relationship due to ever-converging values. We will save progress in the Trump-India nexus for the next article.
I have read many pieces in the US media about Obama’s long-term legacy. There is nearly zero mention in these lengthy assessments of Obama’s India policy. Part of the reason for this is the India relationship is seen as a bipartisan priority among American politicians who all want a piece, and therefore isn’t always controversial like other areas. Another reason for the lack of attention on US-India progress is a severe underestimation of its importance. India is now a key player in US global strategy, especially as relates to balancing against terrorists, Russia, and China for the foreseeable future. Barack Obama is not the sole reason, as his staff, Indian leaders, and previous presidents, especially Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were excellent for India too.
But Obama has taken things to the next level. He has lit a lamp that should continue shining for the rest of this century. For all of these reasons, it is very much fair to name him as the best US president for India in history so far.