Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
usindiamonitor was overly underwhelmed that the position of US Ambassador to India had been left vacant for many months since January 2017. That’s when former Ambassador Richard Verma last roamed the halls of the US Embassy and left behind not only the hot air of New Delhi, but also a legacy of forward progress in the US-India relationship. Obama’s pick was also much appreciated by many Indians worldwide as the first Indian-American to hold the post. Trump promised less than one year ago that India would be America’s best friend as he lit up a Hindu diva in New Jersey, stoking the hopes and dreams of innumerable Indian-American voters along with a wonderful lamp.
Do best friends leave Ambassador posts to one another unfilled for that long, especially if the relationship is as superlatively non-controversial and bipartisan as the US-India nexus today? Maybe not. But in June, promising murmurs circulated about a certain Kenneth Juster being appointed to the post, an unexpected announcement which nearly served to make up for the time lapse. Senate confirmation based on Juster’s qualifications seemed a given due to his tried and true negotiations with India. Opposition either domestic or bilateral seemed unlikely to cause real impact.
Yet several more long months of silence on this matter followed, as the White House and its attendant media were consumed by other, baser affairs. On September 5, Juster was finally nominated to be the 26th US Ambassador to India. We urge rapid action by the US Senate to confirm Juster without delay when he comes up to vote this week.
So, who is Kenneth Ian Juster?
Juster had overseas proclivities generally, and toward Asia specifically from an early age. As a Harvard undergraduate he studied abroad in Thailand, and served as a research assistant to Samuel P. Huntington, one of the foremost political science gurus in United States history. Juster’s resume includes substantive stints in both the public and private sectors, and in each area the work took him beyond the water’s edge. He came to know the levers and pipelines of federal bureaucracy at the White House, State Department, Department of Commerce, National Security Council, and National Economic Council. On the other side, Juster was respected by private sector colleagues at entities such as salesforce.com, power law firm Arnold & Porter, and private equity shop Warburg Pincus, all of which have global operations.
When it comes to US-India diplomatic relations, Juster is among the limited pool of Americans who have found themselves deep in the arena over the years- and yet became accepted as true friends of India by Indians. This pool is relatively small, shared by members such as previous Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, the aforementioned Richard Verma, the late Congressman Stephen Solarz, and former Ambassador Robert Blackwill. Unlike many in the US foreign policy establishment and particularly in the US State Department, these figures generally didn’t condescend towards their counterparts even if they had to play hardball. Indians have never viewed this as a given. Small wonder that Narendra Modi and his team approved of Juster’s nomination.
Juster is known for helping initiate a High Tech Cooperation Group between the two countries in the early 2000’s, at a time when technology trade and transfer were nowhere near the powerhouse level they have now reached. Today, it’s impossible to keep up with the daily flow of US-India tech deals, mergers, and acquisitions. Some of this is finally creeping into the military realm, including the potential for big-ticket US toys such as the Marine One helicopter and the F-16 fighter jet to be made in India, while American drones and other cutting-edge hardware may be sold to the Indian military, all for the first time.
Juster is even better known for what followed, playing a key role in the multi-year negotiations that culminated in the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation deal, to this day a jewel in the crown of bilateral trade, but one which still has a long way to go to fulfill its promise. Nuclear exchange is nowhere near where it could be. Even so 2008 represented the end of a long and difficult climb since 1998, a year when India secretly tested nuclear weapons in the sands underneath the Pokhran desert, angering the United States, prompting sanctions against India, and setting the relationship back by years. There has been a steep climb since 2008 as well to address a myriad of concerns with the deal.
It won’t hurt that Juster has Trump’s ear and has for some years especially on economic matters. There are many challenges in play. A rising China and the bitter escalation with North Korea are going to affect the entire Asian neighborhood for the foreseeable future in this, the Asian Century. The nuclear exchange could stall on matters such as liability. Reduction in the flow of Indians coming to the United States to work and study under the Trump administration should be of serious concern to both countries. Intellectual property and the monitoring quality of drug manufacturing in India for US sales are in need of mutually agreed upon swim lanes. Afghanistan, which has been in turmoil for 40 years will rely heavily on US-India cooperation if it’s ever to stabilize. Future cooperation will also depend on how the United States and Pakistan deal with each other, an issue that India will study more closely than all others.
It is possible that Juster will be part of a much anticipated seismic shift, toward the first mutual defense treaty between the United States and India, befitting for the world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest. There are many steps and pitfalls along the way, but we consider this eventuality to be inevitable the way things are going. Might as well get on with it.
Juster will have his hands full upon arrival in New Delhi. But for now, it’s time for the Senate to do its job and confirm the qualified nominee. This is also a very good time to thank Mary Kay Loss Carlson, the US Charge d’Affaires in New Delhi, for holding down the fort during the long interim period. We also applaud the Trump administration for making a good decision in this critical area of foreign policy. If only there were more of them.
Any objective observation of Washington in 2017 reveals a cross-aisle dysfunction and hatred which have risen to legendary levels even by the swamp’s constipated standards over the Potomac River of time. The word ‘bipartisanship’ is now a cruel joke, and most Americans don’t even remember what that word even means. It’s not our fault. Whether it’s immigration, law enforcement, healthcare, taxes, foreign policy, women’s rights, or education. agreement between Republicans and Democrats- voters or politicians- on any major issue not only doesn’t exist, it isn’t even allowed by party leadership. The partisan wounds have had their scabs ripped off.
The shooting of a sitting Congressman at a softball game, a tragedy which should have brought Americans together, instead predictably devolved into a partisan Mexican standoff between the gunfuckers and gun control advocates. Quaint 20th century stories circulate about genteel lawmakers from both parties sharing shrimp salad and a scotch with their spouses, and we laugh at those hazy Washington recollections as they fade from institutional memory.
Yet there is one area on which the sides are in complete agreement, even lockstep (shockingly). It also so happens to be the area of my expertise. Yes, improving US-India relations is today a bipartisan priority- and probably the only bipartisan priority we can manage to come up with. Democrats, Republicans. Governors, Representatives, Senators, Trump, Pelosi, Ryan, McConnell, Sanders, Tillerson, and Schumer all agree that India should be a better friend. Even Nikki Haley stumbled into a good idea, by advocating India’s permanent entry onto the UN Security Council. US politicians are falling over themselves to say nice things about India. As did Obama and his entire cabinet. Trump has repeated the mantra of India’s friendship himself.
It’s not hard to see why. A closer relationship with India is critical for America’s corporations, national defense, anti-piracy counter-terrorism efforts, immigrant diaspora, universities, and balancing against China. Trump, who is on a mission to crush all other aspects of Obama’s legacy at all costs, has embraced Indian Prime Minister just as Obama did.
There are several factors at play making the current environment conducive to closer ties. Chinese saber-rattling. Modi’s open arms to both US political parties and all corporations. US exasperation with a failing Pakistani state. A crumbling Europe.
The situation with all other friends is much more fluid: Trump has bashed Australia and Mexico, distrusts Germany, is jealous of Canada’s Justin Trudeau, has a bizarre male-dominance complex with France’s Macron as demonstrated by creepy handshake rituals. He is afraid to visit the UK, the indispensable US ally, because they will protest him there. Meanwhile, relationships with China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia are all over the map- from inexplicable, to chaotic, to bipolar schizophrenic level dangerous, and worse.
The only functional and steady bilateral and bipartisan relationship in Trump’s America is with India. There’s a bipartisan agenda of substance, as demonstrated by Malabar 2017, the largest US-India-Japn trilateral naval exercise ever conducted. And this scrap is the last uneaten morsel left on the table of bipartisanship after the attack dogs have ravaged all else. This is a good thing.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
Time will eventually tell us whether Trump goes down as the worst president in US history. At least some competition for that particularly ignoble prize exists, as several other losers from the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s come to mind who could give the current occupier of the White House a run for his money.
But we need not wait for the judgement of historians sitting in their ivory towers to reach a very different conclusion right now: six months in, Donald’s Brood is already irreparably and inarguably the worst first family ever seen in US history. Their vileness is impressive in its united and ugly uniformity (for fairness, young Barron, ex-wives, and grandkids must be exempt from this rubric, and they will be mentioned no further). No matter. There is simply no competition, no close second, when discussing the nuclear version of the Trumps vs. any other first family that came before them.
Unfortunately for us all, sometimes the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. In the case of Trump’s adult children, they are rotten to the very core. Each one is a parasite on America, competing with one another for daddy’s attention, and to see who can most convincingly suck the most blood out of the country and the world, licking it off the silver spoon they were born with. Indecent, entitled, and simply bad human beings, Trump’s perverse legacy will sadly outlast him.
Don, Jr. welcomed Russian help in winning the election with open arms just as his dad was inviting Russia to hack Hillary. Completely lacking a moral center, his only lament from the affair, which blew up this week, is that the Russians brought no dirt on Hillary to the fateful meeting after all following promises of the same. Like Donald, this man is uglier than he thinks he is, a compulsive liar, a spoiled brat, a tool, and a fool. Perfect material for the president’s namesake.
Ivanka plays this dirty game of pretending to care enough about climate change or women’s issues to take away five minutes from her main life’s work, selling third-rate sweatshop slave made apparel at astronomical prices, to talk about these political issues in Vogue magazine. Only for us to find she has no effect on policy whatsoever as her dad proceeds rapaciously to quicken environmental destruction and dismantle women’s health programs. Ivanka is a poorly made up cover front, smiling and dolling up for the magazines and fooling nobody on the right side of things.
None of this is Ivanka’s worst. She brought in yet another prince of darkness, as if there weren’t enough of those little Fauntleroys sitting around already, in the creepy form of her half-baked husband, Jared Kushner. Shockingly, he might be more incompetent and entitled than his siblings-in-law. He repeatedly lies about everything he does, including on national security paperwork. Barely qualified to run a corner ice cream store, the failed real estate magnate-scion wannabe has been given widespread responsibilities encompassing many aspects of domestic and foreign policy, for which he shows zero aptitude or original thought beyond family loyalty. It is a brazen nepotism play that is highly unethical, if barely legal.
Then we have Eric Trump, the wannabe tough guy big game hunter, who uses charity fundraising as a way to make more money for the Trump organization. This is a perfect metaphor for all the Trumps and how they use the organization for self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement. There was one area where the family lacked any clout, the political, and they descended on the carcass of the Republican party like a pack of hyenas. The rest is history.
There is one small bright spot in the family. Tiffany isn’t half-bad for an Instagram model whose main job seems to be taking photos in Europe with other trust fund babies. If only the others stayed out of the way like she did!
Finally we have Melania, who represents a treason within a treason. Not only did she enable, protect, and defend her husband as he ushered dark foreign forces in to help win the 2016 US election, despite her own birth in and escape from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain; she betrayed all wives, daughters, mothers, and girls in general by consistently excusing her husband’s unrestrained sexism, misogyny, and abuse of women that became a shocking and unprecedented hallmark of the 2016 presidential campaign season. She openly plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech and blamed it on an unheard-of staffer. Then she tried her own hand at dirty politics by pretending to want to address “cyber bullying” even as her husband ripped women to shreds on twitter.
It will be such fun to see these people take themselves down.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
It seems that Indian comedians are ascendant these days.
We saw that the first SNL monologue in the Trump Era was performed by Aziz Ansari, who hit a deep home run during a time of great anxiety for many around the world. His fellow Muslim Indian-American comedian, Hasan Minhaj, was on the mic at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which did not include President Trump, who is a poor sport utterly lacking a sense of humor. Trump has no self-awareness and doesn’t want to admit it, but his bumbling around the corners of our federal government is pretty easy to make fun of.
For those of us who didn’t know much about the young and talented Minhaj, this is a good introduction. Minhaj carries the event well, despite some awkward half-hearted applauses. The writing and delivery are spot on in a pressure packed environment featuring top journalists, politicians, and celebrities. In this era of American darkness, we need more brown men to step up and poke fun at our leader- and our crumbling media landscape. They are two cracking pillars of an American society in rapid decline, right before our very eyes.
This video says a lot. Watch it. Whether or not you agree with the line or tone of questioning, it’s quite telling that Sean Spicer opines on whether Indian-Americans are “allowed” in this country in response.
In the words of Sree Chauhan, a US-born education advocate in Washington D.C. who took this video of Spicer at an Apple store:
“I was not polite. But when does being impolite mean that I should be thrown out of the United States of America? The country I was born in, the country I was raised in, the country I love despite its flaws.
I have spent enough time online to encounter rabid Trump supporters. Many of these folks see my brown skin and question my citizenship. They question whether I am here legally. They tell me to leave the country. They have told me to go back to where I came from. To which my snarky reply is often, “Go back where? New York?”
“Such a great country that allows you to be here.”
It’s one thing to have a Twitter egg tell say you do not belong in America, it is quite another to have the Press Secretary of the United States of America do so. I am still astounded. And while I am fearless, I wonder how this administration will use its power to silence ordinary people like me.”
I am a real human. I live in India. I love India and Narendra Modi (NaMo) for his vision for a clean, developed and economically vibrant India. I also love beef, pork, sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling and rock’n’roll (in no specific order). I also follow US politics because it affects us.
MoNa will now take your questions!!! Today, we have a shy, frightened Indian IT professional working in New Jersey who is wondering whether to stay in the United States or not- the latest installation of MONA KI BAAT.
I work for Infosys in New Jersey and am making a good salary. However, since the 2016 election I have been fearful for my safety and wondering whether it’s worth being in the United States. I am going to train in Silambam and tough it out-but it depends on what happens in 2020 or up till then. Who is your ideal candidate for the 2020 US election – using the power of your 20/20 vision?
– Sleepless in Secaucus
Dear Sleepless (I know your real name is probably Srinivas Somnath Shivashankaran):
It doesn’t matter who leads us anymore other than the fact that she should be a good man. Someone who is humble enough to listen to all the people before making decisions that affect us all and someone who is smart enough to take tough decisions even if it means temporary hardships for some of us.
I like Ashton Kutcher – he’s humble, smart and has a heart. I urge Mr. Kutcher to lead us and I also urge the other constituents of civil society to let Mr. Trump lead for the next 4 years based on the mandate he has received. For people in public life – increase explosive, divisive debates instead of shying away from them. For the media – increase the quantum of news and opinions and not become guarded in the face of fake news. For the rest of us – urge ourselves to read more and listen more and not succumb to catchphrases and generalizations. Once this happens, Social Media and Big Data can help get real time, transparent views of the People’s decisions on all matters – Micro-local, local, regional and global thus making it easier for leadership to steer the ship. Mr. Kutcher is already connected with the tech elite through his various investments and hence should know how to use tech to enhance democracy.
I endorse Ashton Kutcher for President of the USA in 2020 as the leader of all the people anywhere who put Mankind before self, people who believe that We can achieve anything if we think of all of us.
It’s another matter altogether whether Mr. Kutcher is ready for public life. I hope he is.
Have you no shame, sir?
We all heard you say on the campaign trail. “I am a big fan of Hindu and I am a big fan of India.” We heard you tell us that the United States and India will be “best friends.”
You’re nothing but a so-called big fan, and a so-called best friend. Sad!
I hoped that I was wrong about you when you said those things about our community. Of course, I wasn’t wrong that you just wanted to score cheap political points without the work. I take zero pleasure from that. But it’s not too late. You can still prove your commitment to our community. You can still act like a leader in a time of crisis.
Cut to America, 2017. This land is your land, this land is my land…The Great City on a Hill, where people from around the world aspire to come to, work in, learn in, fall in love in, create a family in, form friendships in, and contribute to the great ideals of humanity’s leading light…
Cut to America, 2017. Two Indians, Srinivas Kuchibotla and Alok Madasani, were shot in cold blood at a bar in Olathe, Kansas by Adam Purinton on February 22nd. A third victim, Ian Grillot, tried to intervene and was also shot in the process. Grillot is a real American hero, standing up for the rights of his fellow men in an act of bravery worthy of America’s highest civilian or military honor. Kuchibotla is dead. Madasani and Grillot are recovering from gunshot wounds. Purinton is a racist murderer who deserves all of the pain and suffering the criminal justice system has to offer. Oh, and there’s also the ignorance thing: the two initial victims aren’t even Middle Eastern, which is what Purinton thought they were.
THIS IS UNDOUBTEDLY A HATE CRIME DIRECTLY CORRELATED TO THE IRRESPONSIBLE ANTI-IMMIGRANT, ANTI-MUSLIM, ANTI-MIDDLE EAST POLICIES AND RHETORIC COMING FROM DONALD AND HIS STAFF, like so many other incidents in our current epidemic of hate crimes going on around the country. Two Hindus and an American hero are collateral damage in a war of irresponsible rhetoric and broken toys. Our president influenced and emboldened the Navy veteran Purinton to pull the trigger with a thousand lines of bigotry.
The White House response was a whitewash, typical of the cowards in Occupy Oval Office. Minister of Information Sean Spicer bravely crouched into a defensive stance, like he does every other day of this new regime: “Obviously, any loss of life is tragic, but I’m not going to get into, like, to suggest that there’s any correlation I think is a bit absurd. So I’m not going to go any further than that.”
That’s all you have to say? Of all things, absurd is the word that comes to mind?
How dare you!
We could’ve been proven wrong in so many different ways, without even getting an apology. Donald had so many opportunities to earn our respect. Donald could have done a joint statement with Indian Prime Minister Modi, promising that he would do everything in his power to make sure justice is done for America’s “best friend.” He could have reached out to a crying mother to express sympathy, sorrow, and an ounce of humanity- or a grieving widow who is (understandably) literally afraid to even be in the United States. He could have invited flesh-and-(literally)-blood American hero Ian Grillo to the White House, or visited him at the hospital. He could have flown to Olathe to soothe a decent midwestern community that feels violated and ashamed by this incident. He could have gone on TV to express outrage at a murder in cold blood on his watch, at a time where he decries the crime and “American carnage” all around us; and yet we hear nothing from Donald but whining about the media and lying about how many holes of golf he plays – or MAKING UP terrorism in Sweden or Bowling Green when there is a real terror attack in front of his face. He could have looked the world in the eye and told us that violence not only against Indians, or Arabs, or Hindus, or Muslims, or immigrants of any type is unacceptable; instead, not a peep or a tweet out of Donald. The silence is deafening.
We all hear Donald now.
If this is how he treats his best friends, I can’t imagine what he would do for the rest of you.
Donald, why don’t you just be honest for once, and tell us point blank that you don’t give a fuck about us? I’m speaking as an AMERICAN here, for ALL AMERICANS.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor
P.S.: Former US President Barack Obama’s statement after the Wisconsin Sikh Temple Massacre of 2012, when he ordered American flags to be raised at half-staff. I will never forget what a real friend to Indians looks like.
Michelle and I were deeply saddened to learn of the shooting that tragically took so many lives in Wisconsin. At this difficult time, the people of Oak Creek must know that the American people have them in our thoughts and prayers, and our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were killed and wounded. My Administration will provide whatever support is necessary to the officials who are responding to this tragic shooting and moving forward with an investigation. As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship, we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family.
For most American families, “India” evokes such positive images as India’s wonderful cuisines, its many cultural treasures such as the Taj Mahal and the great Hindu books, Gandhi’s historic civil disobedience campaign against British rule, the epic accomplishments of Indian scientists, and the physical and spiritual benefits of the discipline of yoga. Unfortunately, for a small group of American families, numbering in the hundreds, India does not evoke such positive thoughts. They are the families of US servicemen killed in India during World War Two – servicemen whose remains still lie unburied there because of the Indian Government’s long history of callousness toward their humanitarian plight. For these families, who only want the Indian Government to honor their right to repatriate their loved ones’ remains for proper burial, “India” only evokes thoughts of frustration and resentment.
A fundamental aspect of basic human decency, shared by all religions and all cultures worldwide throughout history, is that families have not only a right but an obligation to honor the mortal remains of their deceased loved ones ceremonially with a funeral ceremony as soon as possible after they die. If families are refused access to the mortal remains of their loved ones, they are illegitimately deprived of the ability to exercise this right and obligation, and those who refuse this access deserve the severest condemnation. This right is well-established in both the Geneva Conventions and the body of customary international humanitarian law.
.An estimated 400 US servicemen still lie unrecovered at or near a multitude of World War II crash sites in northeast India. Since the turn of the millenium, 15 of these crash sites have been located, photographed, and documented by the American MIA investigator Clayton Kuhles. From the late 1970s until late 2008, and then from 2010 to 2015, the Government of India did not permit US Defense Department recovery teams into the region of India – Arunachal Pradesh – where most of the remains of US airmen in India lie unburied. For a brief time only (late 2008 until late 2009), the Government of India permitted only one of the many well-known crash sites in Arunachal Pradesh to be investigated for remains, a crash site located on a mountainside in the Upper Siang district near the village of Damroh. In late 2009 the UPA Government withdrew that permission, without a word of protest by the Obama Administration, before any human remains could be recovered. From early 2010 until the assumption of the Modi Government, a de facto moratorium was imposed on Arunachal recoveries. Even after the Modi Government took over, the de facto moratorium continued for well over a year, until the Modi Government, faced with bad publicity over this situation in the Indian press, finally relented and permitted some token recovery efforts.
.During the years (2010-2015) the Indian Government imposed a de facto moratorium on remains recoveries in Arunachal Pradesh, many close relatives of these airmen died, forever deprived by the Indian Government of their right, recognized by the Geneva Conventions (to which India is a signatory). to reunite with the remains of their loved ones killed in wartime, and give them the honored funerals they deserve. Faced with this violation of such a foundational principle of humanitarianism, I (a nephew of one of these MIA servicemen) founded Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action to lobby the Government of India to honor its obligation to allow the recovery of the bodies of these men from its sovereign territory, an obligation frequently supported by statements of Indian leaders, but almost never honored by action.
Secondarily, our efforts have focused on trying to get our own Government – the US Government – to pressure the Government of India to honor these obligations. The Obama Administration was more concerned with selling to arms to India, conducting joint military exercises, and concluding lucrative commercial contracts with Indian companies than with recovering our war dead. The Obama Administration even went so far as to make patently transparent excuses for the Indian Government’s inaction.
With the transition to the Trump Administration, it’s anybody’s guess whether President Trump will make recovery of our MIAs in India a higher priority. Disturbingly, when US Secretary of Defense Mattis recently talked with Indian Defence Minister Parrikar, published accounts of the conversation made no mention of US MIAs in India.
Those who counsel patience to the families of these men are tragically unrealistic. Many of these MIAs still have elderly brothers and sisters who deserve to have their right to bury their loved ones honored during their own lifetimes. These relatives do not have many years left themselves – patience is the one thing they cannot afford. They deserve to have the remains of their relatives repatriated NOW.
Founder/Chairman of Families and Supporters of America’s Arunachal Missing in Action
Cary, North Carolina
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.