THE BLOG
01/23/2015 11:31 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

Obama and India: Love in the Time of Cholera

President Obama will be in India for a three-day visit starting Sunday, searching for that elusive foreign policy triumph to consolidate his presidential legacy. This is not the first time that New Delhi has come to the rescue of a president who lost his sheen.

In 2000, on the heels of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment ignominy, President Clinton not only lifted several sanctions imposed on India following its nuclear tests two years earlier but ended its diplomatic isolation with a rousing presidential visit that heralded a new era in bilateral relations. In 2006, a war-bludgeoned President George W. Bush tried to salvage his foreign policy in tatters with a visit to India, the only major country where he enjoyed a semblance of popularity (thanks to his entering into a "strategic partnership" and signing a historic civil nuclear energy agreement with India).

President Obama becomes the first U.S. president to visit India twice, an honor usually reserved for closest allies, but not a country that notwithstanding all the flattering overtures by the White House remains stubbornly standoffish. When he accepted Prime Minister Narendra Modi's invitation in September to be the chief guest at India's Republic Day on January 26 -- the day the newly independent country adopted a republican constitution 65 years ago -- President Obama was in such political dire straits that he'd have done anything to get away as far as possible from Washington.

Although he has since bounced back from the shellacking that his party and his popularity took in the midterm elections, thanks to an uptick in the economic indicators, the foreign policy successes that President Obama labored to recite in his State of the Union address last week remain pyrrhic. With ISIS and al Qaeda continuing to grab headlines across the world, the president's bragging rights for ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been effectively proscribed.

While opening diplomatic ties with Cuba is significant, its real import for a presidential legacy is tethered to lifting the economic embargo of the island which a Republican-dominated U.S. Congress is loath to do. Ideally, President Obama will want a nuclear deal with Iran and, perhaps, followed by a dramatic diplomatic opening with Tehran, to cap his foreign policy triumphs. To preclude such a breakthrough, Speaker John Boehner has already thrown in the gauntlet by inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress -- a canny ploy to scare the Democratic legislators to pass a veto-proof bill imposing additional sanctions on Iran if it doesn't sign on the dotted line.

In the small window of time he has before effectively becoming a lame duck, President Obama needs an unqualified diplomatic success to burnish his legacy. Welcome to New Delhi.

No doubt he'll receive a spectacular reception orchestrated by a prime minister who has mastered the self-serving art of optics, taking cues from the visitor's own flamboyant campaign style. President Obama will be served well by Prime Minister Modi's determined effort to show off his global leadership prowess by parading the world's powerful man around the imperial colonnades of New Delhi.

But will the two countries make any breakthroughs that presidential historians can crow about? It's complicated.

Despite the rapid strides made since the Clinton and Bush eras, as Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes, "the bilateral relationship has not yet shed its cycle of alternation: The repetitive oscillation where periods of great improvement are succeeded inevitably by disheartening drift, if not deterioration."

Most informed prognosticators are understandably mealy-mouthed about the prospects. Even as they assert that U.S.-India strategic partnership is so important that it cannot be reduced to a transactional relationship, they end up cataloguing items that need to be inked to actualize the potential.

On that score, it will be win some, lose some, yet again.

For instance, there might be an agreement on clean energy cooperation, but the two sides are likely to remain estranged on measures to tackle climate change. There probably will be a joint statement on regional security and counterterrorism, but it will quite likely avoid related matters pertaining to Russia/Ukraine and Syria/Iran, to name a few. Although the U.S. dislikes linking defense sales with high-level visits (the optics are never good), there might be some heartburn about the clogged potential of nearly $8 billion in sales. The two countries might renew their Defense Framework Agreement, but U.S. is likely to be disappointed by the lack of progress on Defense Trade and Technology Initiative.

If the two sides, however, manage to sign an agreement to offset the provisions of India's nuclear liability law, as media reports indicate they will, President Obama will have earned his triumph. After all, the liability law, enacted on the insistence of Prime Minister Modi's own Bharatiya Janata Party when it was in the opposition, has stalled nuclear commerce worth billions of dollars for American companies. India is reportedly willing to bypass the law by setting up an insurance pool to indemnify companies against liability in the case of a nuclear accident.

It remains to be seen if India's compromise will be acceptable to the Americans. A U.S. official was quoted in a news report as saying the discussions on "some creative things in the mix" are continuing apace, even as the president boards Air Force One bound for New Delhi. If the "forcing function" that the presidential visit is supposed to have on nuclear discussions, does not fructify (pardon the alliteration) in an agreement, the parleys will apparently continue for a resolution at a later date. In that case, when the President visits the Taj Mahal with the First Lady on the last leg of their second passage to India, he should take comfort from E.M. Foster's words: "Adventures do occur, but not punctually."