EXPLAINED: How good was Barack Obama for India

While the US has definitely moved closer to India under Barack Obama, it continues supplying high-grade weapons to India's arch rival Pakistan.

As outgoing American president Barack Obama winds down his eight-year-old presidency, it is all but appropriate to look back at how far India-US relations have travelled under the first black president of the United States.

While Obama is believed to have been circumspect initially in forging closer ties with India, strategic interests soon outweighed age-old suspicions as the defense partnership between the world’s two largest democracies became stronger than they had ever been. As Obama leaves office, the US and India are all over the world acknowledged as close strategic partners, bound more so by their suspicions regarding mutual rival China.

However, it hasn’t been all hunky dory. The relationship has had its share of troubles, which have stemmed from US’s continued military aid to Pakistan and differences over perceptions of religious freedom and civil liberties in the two countries, among other reasons.

Here are highlights as to how US-India relations fared under Barack Obama:

Closer military cooperation

  • Barack Obama wasn’t very inclined towards India initially, according to a foreign policy expert at New Delhi-based thinktank Observer Research Foundation (ORF).
  • “It was only after the Americans realised that they would need a power in Asia to balance China, that they showed interest in security cooperation with India,” Manoj Joshi, a former advisor to the Indian government’s National Security Council and now a distinguished fellow at the ORF, told InUth.
  • “Washington realised that its traditional allies like Japan weren’t going to be enough to contain China, so it started forging closer ties with a bigger Asian power that India is, as part of Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ policy.”
  • Joshi noted that in the backdrop of ever more powerful China, America’s security interests converged with that of India’s, and that brought both the countries closer under the Barack Obama presidency.
  • Not only was India seen an integral member of Washington’s “pivot to Asia” that also comprised of Japan and Australia, India and the US under Barack Obama also signed in 2016 a military logistics sharing deal known as Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The signing of the LEMOA was one of the two defense agreements India and the US have signed, the other one being General Security Of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) signed in 2002. According to US defense policy watchers, Washington signs four foundation agreements with its potential full-fledged defense partners, of which India has already signed two.
  • Joshi said that India was also in need of American support to counter growing Chinese assertiveness in the region, as it posed direct challenge to India’s security interests in the neighbourhood.

(Source: Youtube/The White House)

  • Obama also signed an agreement passed by the US Congress recently in December that enshrined India’s status as a “Major Defense Partner”.
  • The fact that both the defense agreements have been signed under a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government speaks volumes about the foreign policy priorities of the right-wing party, in contrast to Congress’ policy principal of being non-aligned.

Also read: 5 most memorable lines from Barack Obama’s last presidential address

How Barack Obama disappointed India?

  • The decision of Barack Obama administration to supply 52 nuclear-capable F-16 aircraft to Pakistan in 2016 evoked strong reactions in India, which in the past has been wary of US’ policy of arming Pakistan with high-grade weapons which have ended up being used against India. Joshi from the ORF reckoned that US might not be able to abandon Pakistan completely due to the ‘War on Terror’ in neighbouring Afghanistan.
  • “The US had almost completely abandoned the Af-Pak region after helping drive out the Soviets. But look what happened. The region became a hotbed of terrorism, which ultimately inflicted damage on US interests. The US under Barack Obama didn’t want to make the same mistake.”

(Source: Youtube/Al-Jazeera)

  • The national security expert added, “The US is a global power. Their worldview is much more broader.”
  • The US also failed to lobby international support for India to help the South Asian country enter the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an elite grouping whose members have access to advanced nuclear technology.
  • Joshi also reckoned that India missed a chance to forge closer security partnership with the US in the Persian Gulf, through which most of India’s oil supply passes. As of 2016, 80 percent of India’s oil came from overseas making the emerging economy one of the biggest oil consumers in the world.

Also read: Farewell Barack Obama! This is what he had to say in his final presidential address

Friction between India and the US on civil liberties and religious freedom

  • Barack Obama will be best remembered as the first black president in American history. Coming from an ethnic minority that until 50 years back were legally discriminated, Obama was sure to have a progressive political outlook when it came to civil liberties and religious freedom. India, on the other hand, has struggled to keep up with US values of equality, even before the current Indian BJP-led government came to power.
  • In 2013, an Indian diplomat was arrested and strip-searched by US authorities after she allegedly failed to comply with American laws on importing domestic labor, an incident that caused massive outrage in India. The then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was compelled to weigh in and condemn the treatment of the female diplomat at the hands of law enforcement officials. The episode also found mention in US State Department’s Human Trafficking Report, a rather notorious thing for a representative of a country with which the US claimed to have a ‘strategic partnership’.

(Source: Youtube)

  • Joshi from the ORF also noted that Modi government’s crackdown on foreign-funded NGOs in 2016 also violated some of US principles on civil liberty. “Some of the NGOs that India banned had strong supporters in the US Congress,” he said.
  • The Indian home ministry cancelled licenses of 25 NGOs for being involved in “anti-national” activities, also refusing to renew registration of 11,319 other nonprofits.
  • A report noting that religious freedom in India had deteriorated in 2015, published by a US government body in 2016, also drew criticism from the Indian government. “In 2015, religious tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased in India,” the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said. The Indian government denied visas to USCIRF officials in 2016.
  • Joshi remarked,”Obviously, there has been friction between the two countries under the Obama presidency.”

Have a listen to President Barack Obama’s farewell speech below,

(Source: Youtube/Global News)