Come Jan. 26 next year, Barack Obama will become the first U.S. president to shatter a symbolic taboo: inviting an American as chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day celebrations.
For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the president’s visit will mark both a diplomatic and a political coup. It supplies a fresh burst of momentum to U.S.-India relations, raises Mr. Modi’s standing as a global leader of consequence and aligns the prime minister’s political base in a way that makes sense for both him and his party.
Mr. Obama’s trip to India will be heavy with symbolism. The sight of an American president reviewing India’s traditional Republic Day parade of military might won’t be lost on either of India’s longtime adversaries, China and Pakistan, or on its East Asian friends such as Japan. It sends the message that while India may be in a tough neighborhood, it isn’t without powerful allies.
As the first sitting U.S. president to visit India twice—the first time was in 2010—Mr. Obama will also underscore the importance the U.S. places on cultivating stronger relations with Asia’s second-most populous country. Coming on the heels of Mr. Modi’s high-profile September trip to the U.S., Mr. Obama’s visit may also spur obstreperous bureaucrats in both Washington and New Delhi to match the symbolism of U.S.-India relations with substance.
Breakthroughs in joint defense manufacturing, civilian nuclear commerce and trade carry the most promise. Mr. Modi will also hope, perhaps unrealistically, that Mr. Obama will spur fresh interest in India from private American investors.
Those who claim that India has little to gain from feting an unpopular president not known for his foreign policy chops miss the larger point. Even a wounded U.S. president remains the most powerful person on the planet. A resurgent, Republican-controlled Congress notwithstanding, Mr. Obama retains considerable leeway to shape foreign policy in his remaining two years in office.
For Mr. Modi, Mr. Obama’s visit will cap what, by any standard, has been a dramatic international coming-out party for India’s leader. As the prime minister seeks to shore up important friendships abroad and reignite economic growth at home, the visit presents an opportunity to bask a little longer in the unexpected glow of international approbation that has greeted him ever since his emphatic election victory in May.
By the end of January, barely eight months into a five-year term in office, Mr. Modi will have hosted the leaders of Australia, China, Russia and the U.S., as well as all but one (Bangladesh) of the leaders of the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. Add to this Mr. Modi’s trips to Australia, Brazil, Japan, Myanmar, Nepal and the U.S. and a picture emerges of a prime minister more deeply engaged with foreign policy than virtually any of his predecessors.
While the thrust of Mr. Modi’s whirlwind diplomacy has been economics—his major trips abroad invariably include time spent selling India to investors—they also serve an important political purpose at home. By flaunting his international acceptability to voters back home, Mr. Modi has effectively robbed his political opponents of a cudgel they long used to beat him.
Inundated with images of Mr. Modi bear-hugging Shinzo Abe, strolling beside Mr. Obama at Washington’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, or taking a selfie with Australia’s Tony Abbott, the prime minister’s critics can no longer argue that he is an international pariah. In 2002 when Mr. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state, about 1,000 people—three-quarters of them Muslim—died in sectarian violence. He has long denied condoning the violence, and India’s courts have not found evidence with which to prosecute him. Now the cloud of international disfavor that has long hung over Mr. Modi has all but disappeared.
Mr. Obama’s public embrace of Mr. Modi underscores this change. For nearly a decade, the U.S. spearheaded Western opposition to the Indian leader. In 2005, the U.S. denied Mr. Modi a visa over allegations of “severe violations of religious freedom” stemming from the Gujarat riots. And it was the last major Western country to end a high-level boycott of Mr. Modi when Nancy Powell, the U.S. Ambassador to India at the time, met with Mr. Modi just months before the Indian elections this summer.
For his part, Mr. Modi has been keen to erase the stigma of past slights rather than to dwell upon them. He likely recognizes that many of his supporters—upwardly mobile youth who dream of getting ahead in a market-based economy—are also those most favorably disposed toward America. Moreover, the prime minister’s most uncompromising foes—leftists and Islamists—are also precisely those Indians most likely to blame the U.S. for all the world’s ills, both real and imagined.
For Mr. Modi, rolling out the red carpet for Mr. Obama makes sense in terms of both policy and politics. Fortunately for him, the U.S. president also sees the logic of deepening ties with India’s most powerful and popular leader in a generation.