A pivotal moment

Obama's return should prompt Delhi to think big about bilateral ties with Washington

Official Delhi, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was quick to welcome the election of Barack Obama for a second term as the president of the United States. India is undoubtedly happy with political continuity in Washington for the next four years. The conventional wisdom in Delhi is that the Republicans are more empathetic than the Democrats to India's political aspirations at the regional and global level. The Republican electoral platform this year was indeed effusive in its call for a "geopolitical alliance" with India.

Yet, the reality is that Barack Obama, despite many initial reservations in Delhi, has expanded the basis for India-US cooperation, the foundation for which was laid by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. That India did not figure at all in the foreign policy argumentation between the Democrats and Republicans this year pointed to the absence of internal squabbling about Washington's approach to Delhi. The current obstacles to the advancement of the bilateral relationship, however, are not in Washington, but in Delhi, where the political drift of the last few years has slowed down progress.

Four years ago, Delhi was deeply concerned about Obama's approach to Pakistan and China, two major external factors that have historically clouded India's relationship with the US. After initially musing about a possible American mediation between India and Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir, Obama quickly backtracked and has refused to involve Washington in India-Pakistan disputes.

In 2009, Obama seemed to accept Pakistan's argument that India is part of the problem in Afghanistan. By the end of his term he was seeking Delhi's deeper involvement in the economic and political stabilisation of Afghanistan. Obama has been more purposeful in confronting the sources of international terrorism in Pakistan. Beyond raining drone attacks on terror sanctuaries in Islamabad's western borderlands, Obama boldly raided Osama bin Laden's hideout deep inside Pakistan, executed him, and laid bare Pakistan's play on both sides of the war on terror. Under Obama's watch, counter-terror cooperation between Delhi and Washington has significantly expanded.

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