US President Barack Obama with First Lady Michelle at the Gateway of India in Mumbai during his visit in 2010. He will be the first US president to visit India twice while in office when he comes to India again next week. Image Credit: PTI

Washington: US President Barack Obama’s historic decision to visit India in January provides an opportunity to focus attention on an important bilateral relationship and, some members of the US Congress hope, address some obstacles in its path.

By accepting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation, Obama will become the first US president to be the chief guest at Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on January 26, 2015. He will also be the first US president to visit India twice while in office. Obama first visited India in November of 2010.

“This is not a breakthrough, but an important improvement in the relationship. It does not mean we are allies, but we are now more into each other in many ways,” said Stephen Cohen, a senior fellow in the India Project at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Modi did a sensational job of selling himself and Indian policy. Whether the delivery will be there is another issue,” he added.

The US-India relationship has received a considerable amount of attention this year as was evident from Modi’s visit to the US in the fall and earlier visits to India by three top US Cabinet officials — the secretaries of defence, state, and commerce.

“There is considerable optimism in senior administration circles about Modi as a strategic partner and a change agent in terms of improving India’s economic performance and investment climate,” said John Schlosser, a former adviser to the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia.

The Pentagon, in particular, “is bullish on Modi and looks forward to enhanced military cooperation, especially in the maritime area,” added Schlosser who is currently with the Albright Stonebridge Group.

The US-India relationship has, in recent years, become bogged down by differences in the areas of trade; intellectual property rights; technology transfers; India’s nuclear liability law; and foreign direct investment in defence, retail, and insurance.

“What is holding the relationship back are non-tariff barriers to investment such as arbitrary tax policies and FDI caps in certain sectors. If the Modi government can get FDI in the insurance sector lifted to 49 per cent during the winter session of Parliament that would go a long way to convincing the US business community that Modi is capable of following through on his glowing language about ‘red carpet not red tape’ and economic reform,” said Schlosser.

Congressman Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the US-India relationship has “struggled to find its footing in the last several years.”

He urged Obama to use his visit to New Delhi to promote US-India trade, full implementation of the World Trade Organisation’s Trade Facilitation Agreement, as well as implementation of the US-India nuclear deal.

US-India defence technology transfers have been held up by questions about whether any limits will be placed on the use of US military technology sold to India.

“Could they use such technology if they got into a scrape with Pakistan or China? Could the Indians export this stuff if they make it in India?” said Cohen. “On the Indian side the big question is can they absorb the technology?”

Despite these obstacles, the US and India have mutual interests in a number of areas, including ensuring a stable and peaceful Pakistan, security in the Asia-Pacific region where China is flexing its muscles, and the future of Afghanistan.

“The Indians seem to think the US is going to abandon Afghanistan. I think Obama is committed to Afghanistan,” said Cohen.

Obama’s visit to New Delhi will likely be heavy on symbolism, but light on substance.

“The biggest issue is the bureaucracy on both sides. We stirred the US democracy to prepare for Modi’s visit and they were looking for deliverables but couldn’t find many,” said Cohen.

Modi visited the US in September. Besides addressing the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he held two days of meetings with Obama at the White House. The two leaders appeared to have struck up a good rapport.

“The top of the [Obama] administration as of now believes in Modi: the president greeted him as ‘a man of action’ at the G-20 Summit in Australia,” said Schlosser.

“Others remain to be convinced that Modi can deliver, but for the time being he is being given the benefit of the doubt,” he added.