The visiting US president and the Indian prime minister have a few things in common: Both are excellent orators, both sold a dream to their nations and both have won elections contrary to expectations – “America can’t elect a black president” and “India can’t elect a Modi.”
The US and India are big and functional democracies – though at different stages of evolution.
A warm welcome awaits the first family of the US in New Delhi. The best carpets are laid out. Security agencies in the Indian capital are working overtime to ensure that all goes well, including an extended no-fly zone of 400km around the capital.
But behind the scenes the primary focus is to push an agenda which makes both these powerful leaders look good in their respective home constituencies.
Broadly, Indian expectations can be categorised in three heads:
The American dream is not yet over for Indians.
From education opportunities it has expanded to job opportunities – almost every Indian software engineer longs for that H-1B visa (US non-resident work visa) which is getting increasingly difficult to get. So easing the H-1B process is definitely one of the points on the agenda.
The “totalisation agreement” or social security tax return is another. According to estimates, Indians working in the US “donate” over $3bn to the US social security kitty. The law does not permit them to claim it back before 10 years. Their work visa is usually for five years. The Indian delegation will lobby strongly to get that changed. If this works, it will strengthen Modi’s middle class support base.
Civil nuclear liability law
Indian officials are trying to work through a logjam to address US concerns about the liability from building nuclear power plants in India.
Under a 2010 nuclear liability law, equipment suppliers are liable for damages from an accident, which US companies say deviates from international norms that put the onus on the operator to maintain safety.
India is offering to set up an insurance pool to indemnify global nuclear suppliers against liability in the case of a nuclear accident.
An earlier insurance pool proposal has been rejected during the tenure of the previous government in India.
Meanwhile, the US’ insistence on tracking the nuclear material they supply to India is raising further roadblocks in the path of US nuclear firms investing in India.
The Central Asia region is getting back into focus for the US. Afghanistan, after the troops’ withdrawal, remains an important factor while Pakistan continues to be of concern for India.
New Delhi will seek the US’ support in battling the cross-border terror support infrastructure – and this is one area Indian officials are likely to succeed as they are, in exchange, offering to balance the growing influence of China.
Indian intelligence would like to claim the recent electoral upset in Sri Lanka as their strategic victory and seek Washington’s help to keep Colombo on their side.
In turn, they will ask US to talk tough to Pakistan on terror networks within that country.
India, however, needs to avoid Indian troops on the ground in Afghanistan as that is what the US may want, but it definitely is not in India’s interest.
It would be interesting to see if any agreement is reached on climate change talks between Obama and the Indian prime minister. Modi has been a climate-change sceptic, and defiantly so.
After a landmark US-China climate deal, India faces growing international pressure to tackle its rising greenhouse gas emissions.
The Modi administration has so far resisted calls to curb or cap its carbon pollution. In the words of the Indian environment minister, “America must understand India’s need to grow.”
“We are at a real developing stage. Therefore, our emissions will grow,” Prakash Javadekar said on Thursday.
Instead, US State Department officials have indicated there could be an agreement during Obama’s visit on solar power projects.
Tackling a rising China
The state of the union address amplified that China’s “Asian assertiveness” is a big concern area for the Obama administration. The US president could try to reignite interest in the much-hyped Asia Pivot policy by enlisting Indian support to help define the continent’s balance of power.
Washington would also try to supplement Japan’s progress in drawing New Delhi closer.
Most policy watchers are cautioning that all this will be on the plate but it is a “process” and will be difficult to achieve conclusive agreements on these issues during such a visit.
What is almost certainly going through and will make both sides look good is a renewal of the 10-year strategic defence pact, strong words against Pakistan, an agreement on cybersecurity and counterterrorism.
Going by the setting – a new government in India and an outgoing president of US – the visit is likely to be high on noise and low on substance.