Obama in India- It is huge, says expert

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New Delhi, Jan 26: The visit by President of the United States of America, Barack Obama to India is being watched closely by everyone. Significant progress has been made during the talks between Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The visit has been termed as huge in terms of significance especially when one compares Obama's last visit to India.

Barack Obama

Michael Kugelman Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia, Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington DC speaks exclusively with oneindia about the Obama visit to India and also its significance.

Obama in India- It is huge, says expert

How significant is the visit by Barack Obama to India?

It is huge. On a very basic level, it marks several firsts--the first time a U.S. president has visited India more than once, and the first time a U.S. president will be Chief Guest at the Republic Day festivities.

It is also significant because it is happening only four months after Modi's visit to the US. It is highly unusual for two top leaders to meet multiple times with so little time elapsed.

So even though there won't be huge, game-changer achievements or agreements, the visit itself is huge and amplifies the desire of both leaders to take this bilateral relationship to a new level.

How would you compare this visit to the one made by Obama the last time to India? Will Narendra Modi get more out of the US when compared to Dr Manmohan Singh?

I think this one is much more important. When Obama last when to India in 2010, he was fixated on the war in Afghanistan. He had just announced the surge there, was taking ownership over that war, and all his policy focus on South Asia revolved around Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The best thing we can say that came out of that trip was Obama's endorsement of an eventual permanent Indian seat on the UN Security Council.

Today, however, things are very different. The US-India relationship is clearly on the ascent, and with U.S. combat troops now out of Afghanistan, there are many strategic opportunities to focus more deeply on US-India relations--a relationship that drifted for quite a few years.

What should ideally be the key areas of focus in the talks between India and the US?

I think counter terrorism is the key, as this is really the most immediate issue. India is increasingly concerned about its vulnerability to terrorism, especially with the foreign troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

I was heartened to hear in the Obama/Modi public remarks after their private talks some references to needing to work together on counterterrorism. Ideally there should also be more progress on intelligence cooperation.

Another key issue is the civil nuclear deal, because this originally was seen as a symbol of a new strategic partnership between the US and India--and yet it then lapsed for several years, and came to symbolize unmet and too-high expectations for a relationship still burdened by tensions.

The fact that the civil nuke deal was discussed, and reportedly the liability problem has been addressed, is huge--because if this civil nuclear deal is operationalized and implemented, it will give a very robust fillip to a relationship already on the ascent.

Do you see any resolution during these talks on the Pakistan issue?

Not at all. This is of course not an issue that can easily be resolved. And yet if the US wants to have a truly deep and strategic partnership with India, then it will need to better address India's concerns about Pakistan.

For sure, there are limitations to what the US can do, but at a minimum the US needs to work with India more closely to deal with the threat to India of Pakistan-based terrorism. And the way forward here is deeper intel cooperation with India to reduce threats, as well as pressure on Pakistan-based individuals that threaten India--such as, for example, trying to freeze the overseas assets of Dawood Ibrahim.

Otherwise, there's not much that can be done. The US, other than privately calling for restraint, cannot on its own get border tensions to tone down. With India and Pakistan talking past each other and not in a position to begin dialogue anytime soon, there's reason to be concerned.

What should be the concerns about Afghanistan? Will US want India to play a bigger role in Afghanistan compared to Pakistan?

The US wants India to play a big role in Afghanistan so long as it doesn't grow into a military role, which would provoke Pakistan. Even with a more assertive PM at the helm in Delhi, I don't think India will necessarily deepen its role in Afghanistan.

It will stick to what's worked in recent years--investment, development, and diplomatic support. Washington supports India's role in Afghanistan simply because it's infinitely more beneficial to U.S. interests.

Pakistan, with its historic support for groups like the Haqqani network that target U.S troops in Afghanistan, is a player that Washington regards with concern in Afghanistan.

Where the US does see a role for Pakistan is in using its influence with the Taliban to compel it come to the peace table to launch reconciliation talks with Kabul.

However, in recent days China, interestingly, has stepped up to lead efforts toward reconciliation. Washington welcomes this, and I imagine it will call for others--including India--to step back for a bit and see how far this Chinese effort can go.

The cancellation of the Agra visit by Obama to be in Saudi Arabia was quite expected. Do you this as a good move by the US?

It's a move that had to be made--Saudi Arabia, after all, is a close ally of the United States. And it really won't have any effect on Obama's trip to India.

The substantive portions of the trip were on Sunday, when Obama and Modi had their private talks, and the symbolic portions are on Monday, when Republic Day happens.

The trip to the Taj would basically have been a photo-op, and nothing else. So nothing is being missed here.

One takeaway from Obama's decision to go to Saudi Arabia is this: Even as Washington works to develop a special relationship with New Delhi, it's important to acknowledge that the U.S. already has a number of special relationships, including with the Saudis, that will always take precedence in certain contexts.

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