With the hype over the Obama visit reaching a crescendo, it’s time for a reality check. Being friends with the United States is one thing, but leveraging it to your advantage is quite another.

There are lessons that India needs to learn, ironically enough from our two adversaries – China and Pakistan – who have been very successful in using the US connection to their advantage. The Obama visit has led to significant movement in all the areas in which the relations had advanced in the Bush era – civil nuclear cooperation, strategic and defence technology ties and economic relations. The stalling of our relationship was
particularly acute in the case of the civil nuclear deal. India’s nuclear liability Act is considered so draconian that potential foreign suppliers have refused to invest in India’s civil nuclear sector. Even Indian suppliers are balking at providing equipment for the NPCIL power reactors.

Just what fix has been arrived at is not yet clear, but Modi’s statement that “we are moving towards commercial cooperation, consistent with our law, our international legal obligations, and technical and commercial viability,” suggests that the hurdles have been overcome. But the devil is always in the detail, and here, the details needed are as to whether the fix proposed is within the letter and spirit of the law. The Indo-US nuclear deal was not really about civil nuclear cooperation. Sure, India needs a leg up in producing clean energy. But nuclear power is not going to be a significant portion of India’s energy mix till at least 2050 and beyond.

The Indo-US nuclear deal was all about strategic signalling. It told the world that the pill that was stuck in the Indo-US throat since the Pokhran I blast in 1974 was, at last, being washed down. Along with it would be the layers of technology restriction regimes that India had been subjected to since then.

Sunday’s joint statement acknowledged that the US considered India ready for entry into the MTCR and NSG. The other two regimes-the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group – would follow. The key change today is that India has a decisive leader, as well as a Government with a clear majority. Notwithstanding a problematic personal history with the US, Modi had a very clear notion of India’s place in the world, and it was next to the United States-”our natural global partner.” That it wasn’t just rhetoric became clear with the swift removal of hurdles to the WTO Trade facilitation deal in November 2014.

The US, which had given up on India, has sensed opportunity and has grabbed it with both hands. Confronted with a rising and assertive Beijing the US realises that it needs something more than its traditional allies in Japan, Australia and ASEAN, to make its Asian pivot credible. The one country which has the potential and heft to offset China’s gravitational pull is India. As of now this is only a potential, but if unleashed it has the stuff of transforming the region’s geopolitics. Read the ‘Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean’ document carefully and you can find the nuances. More important than the nuts and bolts of various agreements is the fact that the US and India now seem to have a sense of shared purpose and direction. There is a sense of realism as well, given the experience of the past decade. As Obama put it, closer ties between India and the US could not be built overnight and could only be developed over a period of time. All the building locks are now in place. All that is left is for the construction crew to begin its work.

(The article was first published by New Delhi-based ORF)