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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 6, January 31, 2015 - Republic Day Special

Obama’s Visit

Saturday 31 January 2015



The second visit of Barack Hussein Obama to this country during his presidency—this time as the first US head of state to attend the Republic Day celebrations at the invitation of PM Narendra Damodardas Modi—has predictably generated a lot of hype that has turned into euphoria following reports in our media of a “remarkable breakthrough’’ in operationalising the Indo-US civil nuclear coopera-tion agreement signed more than six years ago by previous dispensations in both the countries.

As The Times of India reported,

With Obama using his executive powers to roll back the condition that US authorities be allowed to monitor use of nuclear material purchased by India even from third countries, the two leaders successfully finalised the terms and conditions for operationalising the civil nuclear deal....

....While the administrative arrangements were taken care of by the gesture from Obama, India’s 2010 nuclear liability law too remained unscathed.

Despite such observations in the country’s leading national daily, doubts remain among experts about the nature of the so-called ‘breakthrough’. And since the Americans are not known for their altruistic dealings with other countries, observers are trying to find out what kind of compromise, if any, the Government of India has struck on the vital issue of the supplier’s liability in the event of an accident in any of the nuclear plants proposed to be set up by the US in India and whether the compromise would really be in conformity with the provisions of our 2010 nuclear liability law as claimed by The Times of India.

The high points of Obama’s visit were his participation in the Republic Day celebrations in Rajpath (where he was able to get an idea of India’s military might bolstered by Russia assistance), and the remarkable speech that he delivered before the Indian youth at the Siri Fort Auditorium the following morning.

As for the military display in Rajpath, it showed that the legacy of the strategic partnership between India and the erstwhile USSR (and now Russia) was intact; and this is visible at every Republic Day military marchpast. As The Indian Express disclosed under a report “Russian legacy still shows”,

Four Mi-17 V5 choppers showered petals in the beginning (of the celebrations at Rajpath); the last sortie was by a Sukhoi-30 MKI chopper. Towards the end three US-supplied C-130 J Super Hercules aircraft and a C-17 Globemaster were flanked by Sukhoi-30 MKIs, as was the Navy’s P-81 Poseidon by MiG-29Ks. The parade also included the Brahmos.

At the Siri Fort Auditorium, Obama’s rhetorical skills were in full bloom once again—he kept the young audience spellbound, speaking about his impressions of women’s participation in every sphere of Indian life, including the armed forces (that he saw at Rajpath as also during his welcome ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s forecourt), and significantly highlighting the religious diversity of countries like India while asserting that the country’s success was assured so long as the nation “is not splintered along lines of religious faith”—a point which has generated wide debate in political circles.

In the context of the Soviet (and now Russian) military hardware in use in India, as evidenced at the Rajpath military marchpast, it needs to be reiterated that Washington is at present feverishly seeking to enhance defence cooperation with India.

However, hard-headed realism must take prece-dence over other considerations in this area.

Officials of Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Republic—all East European members of the NATO—have declared their intention to abandon the use of Russian weapons and military equipment (on account of the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the West accusing Moscow of interfering in Ukraine). But in reality they have found to their dismay that the cost of switching over to the Western weapon systems was exorbitant. Thus the Bulgarian Government has, after along discussions, decided to indefinitely postpone the replacement of 40 Russian MiG-29, MiG-21 and SU-25 military aircraft since Sofia has had a negative experience of Western-manufactured aircraft procure-ment. The core of the fleet (90 per cent) of gunship and troop-carrying helicopters in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Croatia is Russian-made “MI” type aircraft.

There is a proposal of the US delivering Sikorsky VH-90 helicopters to India. But these involve extraordinarily high cost of maintenance.

As regards the fight against terror, the Indo-US Joint Statement issued after the Obama-Modi talks on January 25 waxed eloquent against the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D-Company and the Haqqani Network with the two leaders reaffirming the need for “joint and concerted efforts to disrupt” those entities. However, some experts felt that when Obama spoke out against Moscow on Indian soil on the latter‘s alleged interference in Ukraine, there was no reason for him to be silent about Pakistan’s proxy war in India; he did not say anything on that score in public in New Delhi.

Incidentally, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh told journalists after Obama‘s attack on Moscow (in a lengthy reply to a question by an American newsman) that India continued to enjoy ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia.

Overall the visit has been rich in symbolism but poor in substance. This basic fact should not be brushed under the carpet in the light of Obama’s warm rhetorical utterances in public, including his support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, that punctuated the trip to the jubilation of the average middle-class citizen enthralled by his straight and frank talk as well as modest upbringing.


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