Obama hosts Indian Prime Minister, unlikely friend
President Barack Obama welcomes India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the White House this week in a low-key nod to the improved ties between the world’s biggest democracies.
That the pair would get along was not a given: When Obama came to office in 2009, the Hindu nationalist was banned from entering the United States over his role in anti-Muslim riots.
But the ban was lifted after Modi was sworn into office in May 2014 and he has since made four US visits — two to Washington — while Obama has twice travelled to India.
Relations between the countries are not always easy — India insists on staying out of formal alliances and forging its own course — but both leaders can boast that ties have improved.
For Obama, who will step down from office in January, this is now a matter of his legacy — friendship with India and inroads into its huge market are a victory for his so-called “pivot to Asia.”
For Modi, Tuesday’s visit is a time to set the seal on what has been achieved and set the stage for what he hopes will be a mushrooming in US-India trade from $120 billion to $500 billion.
Ahead of the trip, India’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar told reporters Obama had invited Modi as one of the leaders with whom “he had a close and productive working relationship.”
“So, in many ways you can say it is sort of a consolidation visit,” he added.
On Monday, Modi will head to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying ceremony and meet with think tank scholars.
He will have a working lunch with Obama on Tuesday, followed by a series of meetings with US business leaders and members of the three million strong Indian-American community.
On Wednesday, he will become the fifth Indian premier to address a joint session of the US Congress, and afterwards will be hosted at a reception for dignitaries and lawmakers.
– Electric deal, military memorandum –
Officials played down the chances of major announcements during the visit, but noted that India is very close to a deal with US electric giant Westinghouse to build a nuclear plant.
“There is a very detailed and advanced negotiation,” Arun Singh, India’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters, adding that only the financing details of the scheme remain to be agreed.
The multi-billion dollar deal to provide power to India’s growing, energy-hungry populace had been on hold because of concerns about site safety in Modi’s home state Gujarat.
But a new location for the six-reactor plant has been found in Andhra Pradesh and concerns about insurance have been ironed out, Singh said.
Another potential arena for greater cooperation is in the military and security arena.
India has made the United States its main arms supplier — spending $14 billion over the past five years — but also spends heavily with French, Israeli and Russian suppliers.
The two countries are negotiating a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), although it is not clear whether a final draft will be ready for Modi to sign on his visit.
This arrangement, long-sought by Washington, will allow the two militaries to seek supplies and spare parts from each other’s bases.
Singh did not say whether agreement was imminent — India also wants deals to acquire advanced US arms technology — but noted that Indian and US troops now train together regularly.