President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed Tuesday to work together to combat climate change, bolster economic growth and fight terrorism as they began to repair the neglected relationship between the world’s oldest and largest democracies.
In a two-hour meeting in the Oval Office, the two leaders touted efforts to fight the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, combat the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa and promote stability in Afghanistan as foreign troops pull out and a new president takes over.
“I think that the entire world has watched the historic election and mandate that the people of India delivered in the recent election,” Obama told reporters as the meeting ended. “I think everyone has been impressed with the energy and the determination with which the prime minister has looked to address not only India’s significant challenges, but more importantly, India’s enormous opportunities for success in the 21st century.”
Specifically, Obama and Modi signed commitments to promote clean energy; boost investment; and cooperate on security, defense, space and higher education as part of a relationship that was given a new mantra: “Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go.”
“This visit . . . has reinforced my conviction that India and the United States are natural global partners based on our shared values, interests and strengths in the digital age,” Modi said. “We already have the foundation of a strong partnership. We now have to revive the momentum and ensure that we get the best out of it for our people and for the world.”
Obama has attempted several times to pivot to Asia, a region of the world he finds increasingly vital to U.S. interests. But other areas have demanded his attention, from the ongoing battles in Iraq and Syria to Russian aggression in Ukraine. In particular, India, which has a rising middle class, is important for the United States on a variety of issues, as it sits strategically next to Pakistan and China and near Afghanistan.
“India’s clearly important, but it’s not urgent compared to the other things that the administration’s having to deal with where you’re talking about the use of force, the deployment of American soldiers,” said George Perkovich, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who studies South Asia. “Those are incomparable challenges and issues. India clearly here is important, though . . . in India there’s a feeling that it isn’t as important.”
In a joint op-ed Tuesday in The Washington Post, Obama and Modi acknowledged “the true potential of our relationship has yet to be fully realized.”
After their meeting, Obama joined Modi on his planned visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. King was inspired by the nonviolent teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence movement, when he sought to end discrimination in the United States. One of the gifts Modi gave Obama was a photo of King’s 1959 visit to India.
Modi is wrapping up a five-day trip to the U.S. with a jam-packed schedule, which included his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly, a campaign-like event at Madison Square Garden attended by nearly 20,000, meetings with chief executives from major companies and a visit with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
On Monday, Modi attended a dinner with Obama in the White House Blue Room, before retiring to Blair House, the presidential guest house across the street. On Tuesday, he had lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry before heading to Capitol Hill to visit Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other House of Representatives leaders.
“There is limitless potential between our two democracies when it comes to economic, defense and counterterrorism operations,” said Rep. George Holding, R-N.C., who led a congressional delegation to India earlier this year. “And with a shifting geopolitical situation in Asia, unwavering cooperation between the U.S. and India is essential to promoting peace and stability.”
Modi’s landslide election in May put India under single-party rule after 25 years. He remains enormously popular by Indians around the globe for trying to streamline the country’s notoriously corrupt and cumbersome bureaucracy and reinvigorate a sluggish economy.
But the National Association of Manufacturers, the largest U.S. manufacturing association, said that so far Modi’s government has not been friendly to business, blocking a global trade deal, raising tariffs and imposing new requirements for imports.
“Actions speak louder than words, and, so far, India is pursuing business as usual,” the group said in a statement.
Modi continues to be criticized for failing to prevent the 2002 Gujarat riots – in which 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was set on fire – when he was the state’s chief minister. U.S. officials banned him from the country in 2005 under a law barring entry to foreigners who have committed severe violations of religious freedom.
Just before his arrival Friday in New York, a human rights group, the American Justice Center, filed a lawsuit in federal court in New York over the riots. Modi was issued a summons, though U.S. officials say he is immune from being served.
In Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, several hundred people protested Modi’s visit, carrying signs saying, “Arrest Convict Modi.”
“Who’s the butcher?” they chanted. “Modi!”
Human rights groups had pressed Obama to speak to Modi about that episode as well as other issues, ranging from violence against women and minority communities to the death penalty.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the two leaders talked generally about human rights, but he did not say whether they spoke about the 2002 riots.
“The Indian people elected Mr. Modi as their prime minister and he’s publicly spoken about his desire to be the leader of all Indians and to focus on inclusive governance and development for all,” Earnest said. “Those are obviously aspirations that the United States would strongly support.”