NEW DELHI – Barack Obama, the sixth American president to visit India since it gained independence, arrives at a trying time, both for the United States and for India. Some of Obama’s closest advisers have just resigned, opening an awkward gap on national security and the economy – the focus of his meetings with India’s government.
For India, the issues on the agenda for Obama’s visit are immense and complex, and the options for resolving them are extremely limited. Those related to security in Afghanistan and Pakistan are as treacherous as they have ever been. Bilateral economic, trade, and currency disagreements may not be as bitter as they are between the US and China, but they are thorny, and lack of resolution is making them more intractable.
Nuclear non-proliferation remains one of Obama’s priorities, as does the sale of US civilian nuclear technology to India, for which former President George W. Bush cleared the way. And Obama will be keen to know what help India can provide with Iran, a country with which India has smooth relations, owing to their shared worries over Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Given this potent list of challenges, what are the prospects for Obama’s passage to India? Some years ago, I was queried by then US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who was helping to prepare President Bill Clinton’s visit. As India’s foreign minister at the time, I told him: “Why make the visit destinational? Be content with the directional,” or some such words. That response retains its flavor today: as new directions in India-US relations are set, new destinations will follow.