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Obama Will Be the Guest of Honor When India Shows Off Its Military Arsenal This Week

During his three-day visit to India, the president will be the "chief guest" at a parade where the country displays its missiles, tanks, and other weapons.
Photo by Saurabh Das/AP

India is pulling out the big guns — literally — to welcome President Barack Obama.

Obama arrives in India on Saturday with his family for a three-day visit that coincides with an annual parade on January 26 to commemorate the adoption of India's constitution. In addition to colorful floats that showcase India's diversity, the country puts its tanks, missiles, fighter jets, and military might on display.


It's the first time an American president is visiting India twice while in office, and the first time a US leader will be the chief guest at India's Republic Day celebrations, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to welcome Obama with open arms.

Getting an invitation to be "chief guest" at the Republic Day parade is said to be the most coveted invitation a foreign leader can receive from India, and Obama's visit is being seen as a symbolic and significant gesture in many ways.

"This trip matters in US foreign policy circles because the Asia pivot is a large part of Obama's foreign policy," Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told VICE News. "He was criticized for being all talk and not following through with concrete action. This gives him a chance to say I'm cementing my relationship with India and together we're moving forward."

With Obama's visit, Modi has pulled off what has been dubbed by the Indian media as a "diplomatic coup." The Indian prime minister shares a troubled past with the United States after he was denied a visa over his alleged role in the 2002 sectarian riots that took place in Gujarat during his tenure as chief minister.

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But after his thumping victory in last year's general elections, Obama was quick to reach out to Modi and invite him to Washington. The two met for the first time in September during the UN General Assembly and hit it off — to the surprise of many.


"If you look back to what people were writing before the general elections, not many expected the US and India to have warm relations under Modi," Milan Vaishnav, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VICE News. "There were many within Modi's inner circle who thought he would give the US the cold shoulder and play hard to get. However, to his credit, Modi realized he needs the United States to fulfill his own personal vision of getting the Indian economy on track."

After a shaky year that included the arrest of an Indian diplomat over allegations that she underpaid her housekeeper and committed visa fraud, and the abrupt resignation of Nancy Powell, America's ambassador to India, the two countries have made amends.

"The sense in DC circles is that India can get its act together under Modi," Dhume said. "India can begin to become the kind of global power it wishes to become."

During Obama's visit, the main talking points between the two sides will be energy policy and climate change, civil nuclear cooperation, defense, and, of course, the economy.

Since taking office, Modi has taken some steps to improve India's commitment to clean energy and tackling climate change. He doubled the tax on coal to fund clean energy, and said he wants to bring solar power to every home in India by 2019.

That said, an agreement to cut carbon emissions — similar to the one recently announced by the US and China — seems unlikely.


"I don't see a big climate announcement along the lines we've seen with China," Dhume said. "India isn't ready."

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According to Dhume, however, a deal in the defense sector is to be expected.

"The bilateral defense cooperation agreement will be renewed," he said. "There could be an agreement on the co-production and co-development of weapon systems—it doesn't matter which one it'll be, but it will be seen as a big step forward."

Russia was — until the US took the top spot in 2013 — the top supplier of arms to India, and the two countries have shared a cozy relationship since the end of the Cold War.

"With each passing year, India is relying less on Russia for weapons," Vaishnav said. "The US is quite positive and bullish about the long-run trend. While [India and America] have talked about co-production and co-development, they have yet to come to terms on a suitable pilot. This will take the defense relationship to a new level."

The visual of the American president watching India proudly display its military hardware is likely intended to send a strong message to Pakistan and China.

Flare-ups are common along the India-Pakistan border, but since October the two sides have exchanged heavy gunfire, killing both soldiers and civilians. The Modi government has taken a more aggressive approach toward Pakistan, escalating tensions. India's home minister has made it clear that his government will give a "befitting reply" to Pakistan for any ceasefire violations, while the defense minister asked the army to "retaliate with double the force."


According to the New York Times, 2014 had the most frequent ceasefire violations since India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire agreement in 2003.

"The [previous government's] approach toward Pakistan was to turn the other cheek," Dhume said. "Turning the other cheek is not how the Modi government views the world or Pakistan. Modi is taking advantage of the US fatigue on Pakistan. The Modi government would expect the US as a friend to back India and lean on Pakistan."

During Modi's trip to DC, India and the US issued a joint statement where the countries raised concerns about "rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes," and cited the need for "freedom of navigation and flight throughout the region," specifically in the disputed South China Sea. With the Indo-US relationship strengthening, there is no doubt Beijing will be closely watching Obama's trip to New Delhi.

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This visit also gives Obama an opportunity to redeem his beleaguered foreign policy.

According to experts, Obama had at least three good reasons to turn down Modi's invitation. First, there was the State of the Union — but Obama moved the date of the speech. He had also rolled out the red carpet for Modi only four months ago, and he'd already been to India before.

"We have a president, who although is a lame duck, is trying to look at his final two years and identify what his legacy is going to be," Vaishnav said. "When you scan the world, there aren't too many bright spots and the Obama administration feels that India is a country where they could possibly say 'we elevated this relationship to the next level.'"

Business aside, Modi is reportedly planning a special gesture for Obama that will give the two leaders a chance to bond — away from the media frenzy. Rumors are that Modi might take Obama to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial to reciprocate Obama's gesture of taking him to the MLK Memorial in DC.

Follow Aakanksha Tangri on Twitter: @AakankshaT