Obama on R-Day: What an idea!

What a brilliant idea to invite US President Barack Obama to the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi! The whole tableaux of an American President being a chief guest at what is often termed as a Soviet-style parade of soldiers and war machinery on ‘main street’ would be quite ironic. This is the first time that an American President will be chief guest at the ceremony at Rajpath on January 26, 2015. There have been many visits by American presidents before; in fact, it would be Obama’s second visit as president, making it another historic first that an American President visits India twice in his tenure.

According to media reports, the idea to invite US President Obama for the Republic Day celebration came from the PMO. Modi and Obama have met on several occasions now and the body language suggests an easy camaraderie.  Pic/Getty Images
According to media reports, the idea to invite US President Obama for the Republic Day celebration came from the PMO. Modi and Obama have met on several occasions now and the body language suggests an easy camaraderie.  Pic/Getty Images

Of course Pakistan is fuming. Obama did not visit Pakistan in 2010 when he visited India. Before that in 2000, President Clinton had stopped by Islamabad on his way back from India to Washington DC. Tailor Branch writes in his book The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, “Clinton landed secretly off-schedule in an unmarked plane, taking with him the smallest functional entourage ‘consistent with the dignity of the United States’.” Of the indignity heaped on Pakistan, lesser said the better. Clinton did not interact with the Pakistani public, instead made a terse televised address to the nation. Watching the telecast on Pakistani TV, Indian TV commentators nearly gloated because Clinton had a fabulous India visit. India was still emerging from the horrors of the Kargil War, fighting to stop the hyphenation of India and Pakistan, fighting to negate the poisoning done by US state department officials like Robin Raphel; it was a hesitant but definite rejigging of US-India relations top-down.

George Bush carried forward that mandate and had a very successful visit to India. Between the Bush administration and Dr Singh’s UPA-I team, India-US relations were getting on to a steady wicket. Obama’s first visit to India was also a huge success. He danced, he pumped hands, said the right things at the press interaction. There wasn’t a moment of awkwardness. But now we have a new government in place. According to media reports, the idea to invite President Obama for the Republic Day celebration came from the PMO. Modi and Obama have met on several occasions now and the body language suggests an easy camaraderie.

Is that important? Yes, absolutely. Foreign relations are as much about policy matters as it is about personal chemistry between heads of government. Before Obama touches down at the Palam Air Force base in New Delhi, Russian President Vladimir Putin would have also visited the Capital. But Putin is not known for warmth of style, other than draping shawls around heads of states or their spouses.

Obama on the other hand exhibits all signs of a man who knows the power of gestures and symbolism. He handles a namaste as well as a bear hug with Dr Singh. Just like George Bush before him... And like Modi, who is a very touchy-feely kind of a guy with heads of states or governments. Modi’shug with President Shinzo Abe, the easy familiarity with Tony Abbot, sitting on a swing with Xi Jinpeng, the guffaws with leaders of G-20 grouping are testimony to the fact that Modi breaks protocol with ease for the larger goal of moving foreign policy out of stuffy rooms with stuffier bureaucrats manning it.

Indian foreign policy is getting adventurous and pro-active. A prime ministerial visit to Fiji was thrown in when it was least expected. Many would like us to believe that Obama is a lame-duck President after having lost the Senate elections, or that the Republic Day parade is a relic of the past. Of course, these foreign policy wonks would also like us to sip Double Seven, drive Ambassador cars and type out our reports in triplicate on manual typewriters.

An American President is the most powerful man on this planet till he demits office. So let us get that straight. India-US relations slide in and out of morass is also a fact. We now have an administration that is keen on getting things done and has the numbers in Parliament to achieve it.

The Modi government can, if it wants, make the US look at India minus the Pakistan factor. Not an easy task because if there is anything Pakistan hates, it is being ignored. But this government has out-of-box ideas, which are surprising Indians more than others, especially those who thought that the new team were novices when it came to foreign relations.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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