Obama at parade fruitful turn in ties

The position of the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in Delhi has always carried a diplomatic message. It showed the country’s strong bilateral relations with the country of the guest or the desire to further strengthen relations with that country. Therefore, Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to President Barack Obama to be the guest at the next Republic Day, and its acceptance by Obama, is a sign of the high importance both countries attach to their relations. It is all the more significant because no US President has graced the occasion ever since the parade started.

Leaders of all major countries and neighbours have been the state’s guests. Heads of state of Russia and France have come multiple times. Even leaders of countries with whom India has had difficult relations, like Pakistan and China, have been guests. So, the absence of the President of the US, the world’s strongest democracy, on the day that commemorates the republican beginning of the world’s largest democracy, had been strange.

India’s relations with the US have been marked by high and low points, strong achievements and weak links. There are historical reasons for the topsy-turvy ties.

India’s early identification with the former Soviet Union during the cold war days and the US support for Pakistan at crucial occasions and on matters important for India were sore points for both countries. Aims and interests pursued by governments at particular points did not always coincide. India’s growing profile, changing US perceptions of its role in Asia and New Delhi’s sense that it needs greater political, economic and strategic links with the US are making a difference to mutual ties. The Indo-US civil nuclear deal was a high point but the positive energy it created could not be sustained.

Prime Minister Modi started his government’s tenure with fine gestures to the country’s immediate neighbourhood. Since then, he has expanded his engagement with a visit to the US and attendance of multilateral forums where the US and its allies have important roles. The bilateral agreement which ended India’s refusal to sign the WTO’s trade facilitation agreement has shown that compromises are necessary and possible. The US is recovering from its economic slowdown and so offers vast opportunities for trade and as a source of investment and technology. It is India’s biggest defence supplier now and this relationship is only going to get stronger. Diplomacy works with symbols also, and the presence of President Obama at the parade may stand for a better and more fruitful turn in mutual relations.

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