For the first time, an American President will be the Chief Guest at India's national day parade on Monday, January 26, 2015. It will also be the first time in history that a sitting American President will have visited India twice. (President Clinton has been to India a number of times after he left office).
India became an independent country on August 15, 1947 but did not adopt a formal constitution and become a republic until January 26, 1950. One of the key architects of the Indian constitution, Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar received a Ph.D. from Columbia University in New York in 1927.
A Military Parade
Republic Day in India is marked by a military parade down the avenue known as Raj Path, which starts from the Presidential Palace and heads to India Gate , a monument commemorating Indian soldiers who died in service of the British crown in World War I.
India typically invites a head of state from a friendly country as the Chief Guest to the Republic Day celebrations. In recent years the Chief Guest has often been from a country which has defense or defense equipment alignment with India. In 2007, Vladimir Putin of Russia visited India for the celebration and the following year, Nicolas Sarkozy of France was the guest of honor. India has bought an aircraft carrier, and Sukhoi 30 fighter planes from Russia; joint development programs include ballistic missiles under BrahMos and a fifth generation fighter aircraft. French companies have supplied Mirage aircraft, and Scorpene submarines; India's largest commercial defense purchase of 126 French Rafale aircraft made by Dassault is under final negotiation.
Today, the Indian Air Force flies the Lockheed C-130J and the Boeing C-17 as transport aircraft and the Indian Navy has P-8i planes monitoring the Arabian Sea for hostile activities. Soon, Apache and Seahawk helicopters will be part of India's military arsenal. The next American President will find that Marine One chopper cabins are made in Hyderabad. The United States is now India's largest defense supplier.
I was part of President Obama's executive trade mission when he traveled to Mumbai and Delhi on Diwali 2010 and he spent more time in India than in any other foreign country until then. While some major trade initiatives around nuclear energy have not moved at all since then, bilateral trade between the two countries has risen rapidly since and is touching $100 billion now. I have predicted a continuing acceleration of such trade for a number of years and if the momentum continues, India could well rise to become one of America's top six trading partners in a decade.
Today IBM and HP employ more than 100,000 Indians each; today dozens of large American companies maintain their largest overseas R&D centers in India; today Boeing, GE, ExxonMobil and many others sell billions of dollars of equipment a year to India. Indian investors have investments in American icons, such as New York's Pierre Hotel, and Hollywood's Dreamworks Studios, as well as in iron ore mining in Minnesota and oil fracking in Appalachia. Indian Americans lead hallowed American institutions such as the Harvard Business School and PepsiCo. But much of the potential of collaboration remains untapped.
India's new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his government are in a hurry to expand India's role on the global stage; he has reached out to Japan, Australia and Israel among others. He will soon visit Germany and the United Kingdom. But the world's largest economy remains the biggest prize.
Of course, President Obama's mission is as much about politics as about trade. The United States needs friendly countries in Asia to balance a progressively more assertive China. Taiwan and Japan alone are not sufficient, and while Pakistan received billions of American dollars during the decade of American engagement with Afghanistan, the country that hosted Osama bin Laden cannot be counted as trustworthy by anyone in Washington. India and the United States share many cultural values: democracy, free markets, multi-ethnic society and a tolerance for diversity. The lasting bitterness caused by President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has faded with President's Clinton and George W. Bush's warming toward India.
But by stepping off Air Force One on a foggy January morning at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, President Obama takes the US-India relationship to a new level. The White House has not yet provided details of the trip. All we have seen are terse announcements from Washington and New Delhi on Friday. Stay tuned for further implications as the trip details get fleshed out.