Obama to visit India again in January

Attendance at India's Republic Day celebrations a vital marker in ties

This article was first published on Nov 24, 2014

United States President Barack Obama's acceptance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's invitation to be the chief guest at India's Republic Day celebrations is a clear sign that both sides want to ramp up bilateral ties, analysts say.

The chief guest is usually from a country that India is keen to deepen engagement with.

Mr Obama will be the first US leader to attend the Jan 26 celebrations and the first to visit India twice. The last visit was in 2010.

Since becoming prime minister, Mr Modi has made ties with the US, which had been strained by a number of issues, a foreign policy priority.

"The turnaround took place during Mr Modi's visit to Washington (in September). Mr Obama's visit will set the pace of the relationship," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

"America is signalling that India is a country that matters. Obama is investing more in India. Modi sees ties with the US as important. This signalling is quite clear," he added.

Relations had been strained over issues such as US dissatisfaction with India's patent laws, US visa curbs on Indian software firms, and a lack of movement in a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.

They spiralled downwards last year, following the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat over allegations that she mistreated her maid.

But Mr Modi has made clear he wants to move forward since he took office in May. He had previously been denied entry into the US following the 2002 Hindu- Muslim riots in Gujarat where he was chief minister. He was also blamed for doing little to stem the violence.

The success of his debut visit to the US, where he had a good meeting with Mr Obama, brought new energy to bilateral ties.

While there, he showed his clout with the Indian American community, who turned out in large numbers to greet him at an event in New York.

Analysts also see Mr Obama's courtship of India at this time as an attempt to gain favour for his Democratic Party among the Indian American community,

While the White House last Friday made a formal announcement of Mr Obama's India visit, Mr Modi tweeted: "This Republic Day, we hope to have a friend over."

The upcoming visit has already shaken things up in the region.

During a phone conversation last Friday, Pakistan's Prime Minister, Mr Nawaz Sharif, asked Mr Obama to take up with India the issue of Kashmir, an area of dispute between the two neighbours.

India called off talks with Pakistan after the Pakistani High Commissioner met Kashmiri separatists ahead of foreign secretary- level talks this year.

In India, both the media and analysts called Mr Obama's visit the "diplomatic coup" of Mr Modi.

"Obama at R Day is a sign of things to come," read a headline in The Asian Age.

Though the visit comes near the end of Mr Obama's presidential tenure, analysts say it would be an important one.

"It will be an important marker in the relationship... It will bring the relationship back on an even keel," said former Indian foreign secretary Salman Haidar.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg