It's no coup, stupid

US President Barack Obama’s nod to visit India as chief guest on Republic Day has been touted by the media as a diplomatic coup. While it is a fact that Obama is the first US president to be invited as chief guest for the event, the question is whether the hyperbole description of a diplomatic coup is accurate.

For, a coup implies it is a breakthrough in Indo-US relations, that ties between the two countries are set to scale hitherto uncharted territory and that it symbolises changing political equations in the subcontinent vis-a-vis the US. The reality is, however, far from the hype.

Yes, a US president is powerful and wields enormous clout but that flows from his role as the chief executive of the world’s sole superpower. The US presidency is an institution firmly controlled by a time-tested interlocking set of checks and balances making its every action accountable. In short, Obama is no dictator and has little power to extend largesse to anyone he likes or to any country he admires.

This being the case, a president’s visit abroad, while garnering good publicity, is limited in what it can really do to an underling country like India. It is the overarching US establishment that is powerful, with strategic interests and the power to formulate plans, which it then expects the president to carry out. Take the case of the Indian subcontinent. For the last six decades, right through the cold war period, the US has always viewed Pakistan as its principal ally.

There may have been hiccups occasionally but nothing has happened to fundamentally dilute US-Pakistan relations. On the contrary, Pakistan continues to be crucial for the US considering its proximity to Afghanistan and China. India on the other hand, from the US view, moved from being the friend of a rival (the erstwhile Soviet Union) to being an acquaintance (after the Soviet disintegration). Since then, India and the US have undoubtedly got closer.

The reasons are clear: With economic reforms and the opening up of the world economy, the Indian market is particularly attractive to the US. Add to this the emergence of an internet-linked world, and the relationship got firmer. But the caveat is, none of this has happened by excluding Pakistan from its equation. The US has ensured that it relates to India and Pakistan on parallel tracks with its own interests determining the course.

The US has indeed made some concessions to its two-decade-old friendship with India – the nuclear deal with Delhi and its pressure on Islamabad to cut off support to Kashmiri separatists, both irritating Pakistan.

Beyond these, the US has refused to give India any quarter where Pakistan is concerned, other than paying lip service to Delhi’s worries. It continues to bankroll Pakistan’s economy and – irritatingly for Delhi – continues to view relations with India through the prism of its relations with Pakistan.

Mere photo-ops and publicity

These are US policies followed by at least three presidents – Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama – from both the Republican and Democratic parties. So a visit by an Indian prime minister to the US or a visit by a US president to India for any reason, while providing photo-ops, good publicity and feel-good atmospherics, makes little difference to the depth of relationship between the two countries.

Two factors seemed to have played a big role in projecting Obama’s anticipated arrival on Republic Day as a diplomatic coup. First, in India’s current political climate, anything that Prime Minister Narendra Modi does is portrayed as a coup – right from his numerous trips to various countries to the programme of cleaning India to taking a couple of cricketers to Australia. Second, the hope that Obama will wave his magic wand and India will overnight become a US favourite.

Unfortunately, realpolitik does not work that way. Within the US itself, the euphoria that accompanied Obama’s ascension to presidency, after ‘war-monger’ George W Bush, has evaporated over time. Obama was expected to apply a healing balm in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was even awarded the Nobel prize for peace, just months after he came to power, based on the address of love and understanding he delivered to the Muslim world from Cairo.

However, instead of a benign Obama, the world has seen the US under him involved in arming rebels in Syria, fuelling an internal conflict that has killed thousands. Worse, it has caused the emergence of the ruthless Islamic State group.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama has aggressively backed the use of drones which have killed scores of civilians. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama has faithfully followed the policies of his predecessors in backing Israel to the hilt.

Even if Obama intended a different denouement, he was forced to act contrary to his own wishes as that is how the US establishment wanted it. Take his pet project – of making healthcare in the US accessible for all. Despite his best efforts and personal push, all that he has managed is a marginal opening up of healthcare, one that is bound to be rolled back under the next dispensation as it goes against entrenched corporate interests.

Ironically, Obama is no great friend of India. He has acted against India’s software industry by encouraging moves in the US restricting outsourcing. But then again, he has taken this position not because he dislikes India but due to the continuing recession in his country.

So, national interests come first. A smile here, or a handshake there, garnished by an occasional visit can only go that far. The Republic Day parade may even impress Obama but that is not going to translate into anything substantial beyond whatever already exists in Indo-US relations.

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