NEW DELHI: In a mild but carefully-crafted rebuke to Indian authorities on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama cautioned the country’s political leadership against the dangers of religious intolerance.
The rebuke was delivered at one of Obama’s final engagements in New Delhi before he headed off to Saudi Arabia. At the time President Obama was speaking to students and non-governmental organisation activists.
His remarks were a clear allusion to the Hindu-Muslim tensions reported from several Indian cities and arson attacks on half a dozen churches after Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led government came to power. Those attacks were followed by incendiary statements by Indian politicians on conversion.
This cannot have gone down well with the Indian political leadership which had laid down a red carpet in terms of ceremonials, given that no American president has ever attended the national day parade of any country before; and this was Obama’s second visit during his tenure.
Obama during his previous visit had told India frankly to behave like world’s largest democracy instead of merely saying it. Although tangible deliverables from his visit were few, the trip contributed significantly towards a better understanding between New Delhi and Washington – and with a little bit of effort, it can be developed into solid bricks of a partnership.
The one thing that India and the US agreed on was to remove a last mile hurdle in the operationalisation of the civil-nuclear agreement. This was a clearer definition of the liability clause.
After the Bhopal gas leak, India has been wary of industrial disasters caused by careless equipment suppliers, especially foreign ones, and has laws that put the onus of risk on the supplier. But investors in the US (and elsewhere) believe that it is the operator – or the Indian state – that should bear the risk.
They also wanted assurances that in case of a leak (of the Fukushima sort, for instance) they will not be the ones, who will be pursued in multiple courts in multiple cases.
During Obama’s visit, the attorney general has given an opinion that liability of the suppliers would be limited. A Rs15 billion fund has been announced that will address claims arising out of any accident. Whether the US companies, such as Westinghouse, are convinced by this sufficiently to pour money in setting up India’s civil nuclear power plants is to be seen.
There was a considerable forward movement on counter terrorism and intelligence sharing mechanisms. But few details have been made public.
On Pakistan, Obama said nothing and Modi said nothing. However, India will try to use this newfound global partnership to leverage the US in getting Pakistan to moderate militants groups, which, it alleges, are active in the East.
There has been some debate in the strategic community about what the trip means for Modi – and in the larger geopolitical context – for Sino-India relations. Obama repeatedly asked India to assume its place in the comity of world nations.
This is seen as an offer to act as a counterpoise to China not just in the region but also in the world. But there is a contradiction in terms here. If Modi accepts US suggestions to get more active along with Japan and the US in the Indian Ocean Area and also in South China Sea, this will raise China’s hackles.
On the other hand, ignoring the US and Japan, the nation with which he has the warmest personal ties), is not an option at all. How the contradiction is finessed diplomatically to minimise visible damage is the issue.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 28th, 2015.
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