President Barack Obama said the United States could be India’s “best partner” as he wrapped up a visit on Tuesday (27) aimed at forging a new friendship between the world’s largest democracies.
India and the US could forge “one of the defining partnerships of this century”, Obama said, as he became the only US president to visit India twice.
Obama was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade which took place in New Delhi on Monday (26). It is one of the biggest honours that India can bestow on a foreign leader.
In a sign of the “chemistry” with his fellow leader, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi broke protocol to be present at the airport when Obama arrived. He greeted the US president with a bear hug as he stepped off Air Force One in Delhi last Sunday (25).
On Monday, Obama pledged $4 billion (£2.6bn) in investments and loans, seeking to release what he called the “untapped potential” of a business and strategic partnership between the two nations.
“India and the United States are not just natural partners – I believe America can be India’s best partner,” said Obama after receiving a rapturous welcome from around 1,500 people in the capital.
Modi last Sunday said that Obama’s three-day visit “reflects the transformation of our relationship”, adding the two countries were natural allies.
The prime minister said Obama’s decision to become the first US president to visit India twice while in office had huge symbolic importance.
“Relations between countries depend less on full stops and commas and more on the relationships between leaders… the chemistry between them,” Modi said.
“Barack and I have struck up a strong friendship… this chemistry has not just brought me and Barack closer but also brought Washington and Delhi – and the people of our countries – closer together,” Modi said.
The leaders talked on first-name terms, recorded a radio programme together and spent hours speaking at different events.
Obama said after the leaders recorded the radio show: “We have just come from discussions in which we affirmed that India and the United States are natural partners, because we have so much in common.
“We are two great democracies, two innovative economies, two diverse societies dedicated to empowering individuals. We are linked together by millions of proud Indian Americans who still have family and carry on traditions from India.
“And I want to say to the Prime Minister, how much I appreciate your strong personal commitment to strengthening the relationship between these two countries.”
Obama later told Indian and US business leaders: “We are moving in the right direction ... That said, we also know that the US-India relationship is defined by so much untapped potential. Everyone here will agree, we’ve got to do better.”
One of the highlights of Obama’s visit was an agreement on issues that, despite a groundbreaking 2006 civil nuclear pact, had stopped US companies from setting up nuclear reactors in India and had become one of the major irritants in bilateral relations. That deal should have given India access to civilian nuclear technology but it was held up by US concerns over India’s strict laws on liability in the event of a nuclear accident.
Officials on both sides said the new agreement would involve setting up a multi-million dollar insurance pool which would effectively indemnify companies that built reactors and crucially, would not require legislation.
“I am pleased that six years after we signed our bilateral agreement, we are moving towards commercial cooperation, consistent with our laws (and) international legal obligations,” Modi said.
“This is an important step that shows how we can work together to elevate our relationship,” Obama added.
The US is looking to reinvigorate alliances in the Asia-Pacific as part of Obama’s ‘pivot’ east, and has taken note of Modi’s more assertive stance towards China.
After flying into an overcast New Delhi, Obama received a welcoming ceremony that included a 21-gun salute and full guard of honour. He also laid a wreath at a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi.
On Monday (26), at Modi’s invitation, Obama was the first US president to attend India’s annual Republic Day parade, a show of military might.
Obama, his wife Michelle, Modi and other high-profile leaders watched as the parade unfolded along Rajpath, an elegant lawn-bordered boulevard that connects Rashtrapati Bhawan (the presidential palace) to India Gate. Helicopters showered petals on the crowds, and then tanks, missiles, marching soldiers, brass bands and dancers filed past the guests.
The US president, who was driven around in his armoured limousine known as the ‘Beast’, said at the ceremony it was “a great honour” to return to India and thanked his hosts for their “extraordinary hospitality”.
Obama’s presence at the parade signals Modi’s willingness to end India’s traditional reluctance to get too close to any big power. Instead, he is seeking ties with them all, even as he pushes back against China and take sides on other global issues.
Modi said US investment in India had doubled in the past four months and vowed to do more to slash the country’s notorious red tape and make it one of the world’s easiest places for business.
America views India as a vast market and potential counterweight to China’s assertiveness, but has been frustrated with the pace of New Delhi’s economic reforms.
“There are still too many barriers, hoops to jump through, bureaucratic restrictions that make it hard to start a business, or to export, to import, to close a deal, deliver on a deal,” Obama told a forum of CEOs and business leaders from both countries in New Delhi.
India accounts for only two per cent of US imports and one per cent of its exports, Obama said. While annual bilateral trade had reached $100 billion (£66bn), that is less than a fifth of US trade with China.
India and the US also agreed to a 10-year framework for defence ties and struck deals on cooperation that included joint production of drone aircraft and equipment for Lockheed Martin Corp’s C-130 military transport plane.
Obama said the US Export-Import Bank would finance $1bn (£658 million) in exports of ‘Made-in-America’ products. The US Overseas Private Investment Corporation will lend $1bn to small- and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas of India. Regarding renewable energy, a key focus for Modi, $2bn (£1.3bn) will be committed by the US Trade and Development Agency, Obama said.
In a joint statement that made a veiled reference to China’s territorial claims, Modi and Obama stated their commitment to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
India could even play a role in battling Islamic State, the White House said on Monday, underlining the confidence that New Delhi is increasingly prepared to engage with global security.
“The leaders agreed to exchange information on individuals returning from these conflict zones and to continue to cooperate in protecting and responding to the needs of civilians caught up in these conflicts,” the statement added.
Obama had been due to visit the Taj Mahal with Michelle on Tuesday, but the trip was cut short as he left for Saudi Arabia after the death of the king.
As he wrapped up his three-day visit to India, Obama urged India to promote religious tolerance and do more to combat global warming on Tuesday (27).
Addressing an audience of mainly young people, Obama spoke on a range of political and social issues, including women’s rights.
Earlier, the US president also warned that the war against climate change would not “stand a chance” without India.
In a speech that was the finale of a packed visit which has seen a dramatic upturn in the bilateral relationship, Obama praised the non-violence tenets of Mahatma Gandhi. The president spoke about the treatment of women, an issue that has troubled India since the horrific gang rape and murder of a student on a bus in New Delhi two years ago.
“Every daughter deserves the same chance as our sons,” he said. “And every woman should be able to go about her day – to walk the street or ride the bus – and be safe and be treated with the respect and dignity. She deserves that.”
Obama added: “One of the favourite things on this trip for me has been to see all these incredible Indian women in the armed forces, including the person who commanded the guard that greeted me when I arrived (at Rashtrapati Bhavan). It’s remarkable. It is a sign of great strength and progress.”
In a first, India’s defence forces chose women officers to lead their marching contingents during the Republic Day parade on Monday (26). Wing Commander Pooja Thakur of the Indian air force led the guard of honour at the Rashtrapati Bhavan where Obama was accorded a ceremonial welcome.
The US president said: “In India, women have shown that they can succeed in every field, including government, where many of your leaders are women. The young women, like present here, are playing their part in India’s progress.
“We know from experience that nations are successful when their women are successful. When girls go to school… this is one of the most direct measures of whether a nation is going to develop perfectly… and how it treats its women.”
Hours before boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia, Obama also warned India not to stray from its constitutional commitment to allow people to freely “profess, practice and propagate” religion.
“India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith, as long as it is not splintered along any lines, and it is unified as one nation,” he said in his townhall address.
“Every person has the right to practise their faith how they choose, or to practise no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear of discrimination,” he said.
“Nowhere is that more important than India, nowhere is it going to be more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld.”