NEW DELHI — It’s an unprecedented gesture toward an American president and one that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes will intensify the diplomatic outreach in a bilateral relationship that at times has fallen far short of both countries’ hopes.
Never has a U.S. leader been the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, the centerpiece of India’s national day celebrations. So the invitation to President Obama, whose three-day visit to the world’s biggest democracy begins Sunday, assumes significance for U.S.-Indian ties and for the aggressive diplomacy Mr. Modi has adopted since becoming prime minister in May.
Indian media have been reporting every news tidbit, often not entirely authenticated, in the buildup to Monday when Mr. Obama will take his place at the heavily secured enclosure on Rajpath, the ceremonial boulevard in New Delhi, for the Republic Day parade.
Beyond the pomp and ceremony, the big question is whether the visit will give a much-needed boost to the strategic, economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries, which are hoping to get more out of the alliance.
Chintamani Mahapatra, an analyst on U.S. studies at the School of International Studies in New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University, said high expectations have been set for the summit, given the role Mr. Modi has been playing since taking the reins of India.
“The rate at which Mr. Modi has interacted with foreign leaders, particularly from powerful and influential countries, in less than half a year has little precedence in Indian diplomatic history,” Mr. Mahapatra said. “None of his predecessors could think of inviting the leader of the most experienced and powerful democracy — the United States — to take part in India’s annual celebration of its Republic Day. This is where he has been able to match symbol with substance in his diplomatic endeavors.”
Mr. Modi, 64, a former Hindu activist and regional governor, made a well-received trip to New York and Washington in September highlighted by a rapturous pep rally with Indian-Americans at Madison Square Garden and a private tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in the nation’s capital led by Mr. Obama himself.
Setting high goals
Despite the glowing symbolism, though, many in diplomatic circles have felt that the alliance did not live up to the grand expectations. The Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia has focused far more intensely on Beijing than on New Delhi.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, bilateral trade in goods with China hit $637.9 billion last year, more than 10 times the $61.4 billion in comparable imports and exports with India. Washington and New Delhi also have been at odds on issues such as investment policy, intellectual property rights and climate change.
Mr. Obama is expected to press for a carbon-limiting promise similar to the one he obtained on his visit to China in November.
But Mr. Mahapatra said Mr. Modi was right to set the bar high.
“Setting the goal high is always preferable to achieve wonders,” he said. “If we speak of ‘strategic partnership,’ anyone who feels it has failed has not understood what has been achieved.
“Five times growth in bilateral trade since 2000, 30 times growth in Indian investments in the U.S. during the same period, more than 10 times increase of U.S. investment in India during the same period and about 70 times holding of bilateral military exercises, and still some people say Indo-U.S. strategic partnership has failed. Nothing is farther from the truth,” Mr. Mahapatra said.
He said the Modi-Obama summit will provide a good test of whether differences over ways to handle ties with Russia, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan can be overcome through a slow but steady rise in the strategic partnership.
Washington’s attempts to keep a working relationship with Pakistan have been filled with constant complications in the relationship with India. Diplomatic incidents also have marred the path to closer ties, the latest being the angry reaction over the arrest and strip-search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade in a visa fraud case in New York in 2013.
“The second summit depicts the emerging possibilities and warming of ties. The visit of President Obama stands out as a diplomatic victory for the new government in Delhi. Mr. Modi can well be credited with galvanizing and fast-tracking the wilting Indo-U.S. tie,” said Sujeet Sarkar, an author and international scholar on governance, who said the two leaders will be challenged to make substantive progress to match the visit’s symbolism.
“If Modi’s U.S. visit was meant to break the ice, now is the time to push substantive agreements around business and international strategic affairs,” he said.
According to analysts, the first and foremost agenda would be to kick-start the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal, the 2005 agreement negotiated by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Mr. Modi’s predecessor, which did not lead to the major deals and an expansion of bilateral ties that both sides sought.
Sealing business deals
Much of the military hardware Mr. Obama can expect to see at the traditional Republic Day display comes not from the United States but from Russia, India’s traditional military hardware supplier.
“The historic nuclear agreement is yet to translate into concrete action and has been languishing over intellectual property rights and nuclear liability disputes,” Mr. Sarkar said. “Prime Minister Modi would be interested in getting the deck cleared, allowing greater participation from the U.S. nuclear power giants supplying turbines and technical know-how, to bridge the growing power deficit in India,” he said.
Rajiv Nayan, an arms control and nonproliferation analyst at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, said the success on the front of the civil nuclear deal is when American companies start doing business in India in significant numbers.
Mr. Modi won his smashing victory last year in part on promises to overhaul India’s sluggish bureaucracy and legendary red tape to make the country more friendly to entrepreneurship and foreign investors.
“If U.S. companies are confident they will come. If they see profit they will come despite the nuclear liability law in India as an impediment. The fear of the remote cost of a nuclear accident which does not happen usually will not deter them. The ball is now in India’s court to build confidence for the companies,” Mr. Nayan said.
“The companies are going to South Korea, despite an even worse [investment] law. It is because they are getting orders from there,” he said.
There is also a big buzz over technological collaborations to boost defense ties. India is keen to import U.S. technology to be manufactured in India under Mr. Modi’s “Make in India” policy.
“There is a good scope here to provide [the U.S.] with India’s scientific manpower, which is in surplus. India can import defense technology to manufacture in India and export to a third country,” Mr. Rajan said.