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Saga of US-Indian relationship remains seamless

By M K Bhadrakumar
July 22, 2009 13:19 IST
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American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit was the Obama administration's first high-level political consultation with India since assuming office in January. Clinton had no pressing engagements in Mumbai, but took her time to reach Delhi on Sunday. She may have underscored that the Obama administration looks forward to a broad-based relationship with India that goes beyond the highly militarised "strategic partnership" that the George W Bush administration sought and Delhi got used to.

Obama seeks a "greening" of the US-India partnership whereas Indian strategists schooled in the eight-year cherished belief that the future of the US-India partnership lies in the two countries striding "shoulder to shoulder" in terms of a shared "vision".

From the Indian end, the "vision" meant that the US recognised India's primacy as the number one military power in the Indian Ocean region and built it up as an Asian counterweight to China. The "vision" had a dream run during the Bush era. India held something like 50 military exercises with the US during the past five-year period.

But Obama's priorities lie elsewhere. The America he inherited has different priorities. The world, too, has changed following the global downturn and things are not the same. To be sure, Clinton is on a formidable diplomatic mission as the harbinger of startling tidings to Delhi. Her repertoire lacked rhetoric.

Her irrepressible predecessor, Condoleeza Rice, would have seized the moment with her school-girlish enthusiasm and brilliant smile to insist that her messianic mission aimed at making India a world-class power. Indians anxiously scoured the weekend papers and sorely missed Rice's rhetoric.

Of course, Clinton was not lacking in charm or enthusiasm as she walked around rain-swept Mumbai observing the wonderful work done by social activists who championed the emancipation of downtrodden Indian women, or as she held the hands of movie stars who double up as educationists, and as she laughed and talked with the captains of Indian industry who make India's economic growth happen. In a manner of speaking, it is symbolic Clinton chose Mumbai for her first halt – a city that insolently mocks at Delhi for its pretentious airs.

The US-India relationship is a bit like a marriage where one partner simply needs some space. For the US, the centrality of Pakistan in its regional policies in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf in the coming period is a compelling reality. Therefore, Clinton chose to give an interview to the Pakistani media (even ahead of any Indian media interaction) so that Islamabad did not need to fear the outcome of her India visit.

Clinton said: 'Well, I think if you go back and look at the history between the United States and Pakistan, we were not always as sensitive or understanding of the needs of the Pakistani people. We were not always constant in our support and our friendship for Pakistan… So it's been, I would argue, a relationship that hasn't been as constant and as effective as we would want it to be… I mean, we are just human beings; we know that. But we want to be as honest in admitting them as possible, learning from them, and then trying to move forward… Our goal is to be there as a constant friend and a country that Pakistan can rely on to build up more trust and understanding between us, and to be of assistance when asked by Pakistan'.

Yet, she was proceeding to India first. The Indians are intrigued. They were hoping to present Clinton with a list of convincing reasons why the US and India should collaborate as partners in pressuring Pakistan to amend its record of breeding international terrorism and proliferating nuclear technology. But Clinton made it clear that Washington is pretty pleased with Pakistan's performance in the war on terror and that Pakistani nuclear inventory was securely fastened, no matter Islamabad's past behavior -- and that's all that mattered today.

Indians will be wrong to take this amiss. The heart of the matter is that the US cannot allow any third party interrupting the crucially important business of its close collaboration with Islamabad to stabilise Afghanistan through a dialogue with the Taliban. As the spokesman of the Pakistani military told the CNN in an interview recently, it is the Pakistani intelligence that can bring hardcore Taliban leaders like Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani to the negotiating table with the US.

Furthermore, as the great game accelerates in Central Asia and if the situation around Iran assumes critical proportions, Pakistan becomes a key partner. Pakistan's brusque integration into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is self-evident. Indians, unfortunately, missed the plot. Up until last year, strategists in Delhi even fancied notions of an Indian military deployment in Afghanistan.

The Indians' deeply-entrenched suspicion about Chinese intentions corrode their judgment and prevent them from connecting the dots that separate the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs and the Silk Road. They fail to comprehend the Great Game. Over the weekend, a prominent Indian commentator showed incredible naivety to argue New Delhi should use its influence with the northern Afghan tribes -- Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras -- to quell Uighur ethnic tension in Xinjiang.

What perturbs Indian strategists is how Pakistan might take advantage of the US. Kashmir is the spectre that haunts Indian strategists. Clinton came dangerously close when the Pakistani interviewer probed her. 'I think that the disputes between India and Pakistan, which are historical and long-standing, should be looked at with fresh eyes… The United States stands ready to support the steps… but it's not just the government, but the people… Well, it [Kashmir] certainly should be on the agenda of discussion between India and Pakistan'.

On the balance, however, India's testiness as it awaited Clinton was of its own making. Its regional policy touches a low point today and its regional influence in Central Asia is almost negligible. The top items on Clinton's agenda are to secure an investment protection agreement and an end-use monitoring deal with Delhi that met the US legislation making sure sales of military equipment are used for the purpose stated.

Meanwhile, the US signed a technology safeguards agreement that is a requisite first step (pending negotiation of a commercial space launch agreement), towards allowing India to launch US satellites or third country satellites that have US equipment on board. The US has a similar agreement with China.

The irony is that New Delhi did all it could in the recent years to harmonise its regional policies with the US's. Its response to the new Cold War has been to keep a calibrated distance from its traditional ally Russia. Its response to the US-Iran standoff has been to atrophy India's close and friendly ties with Iran. Its response to the US's containment strategy toward China has been to identify with the strange idea of a quadripartite alliance with the US, Japan and Australia.

In comparison, Pakistan zeroed in on the potentials of the US intervention in Afghanistan and the implications of the great game in Central Asia for the US's geo-strategy – especially the role of Islamist elements. An extremely rewarding relationship followed since 2001, as natural as daybreak. For a while, Pakistan got worked up that Bush might be tilting toward India when he signed the nuclear deal. But as Clinton's visit shows, the nuclear deal has become controversial.

The Obama administration is determined to bring the nuclear deal within an overall architecture of global nuclear non-proliferation. As a first step, the US got its G-8 partners accept at the recent summit meeting in Italy that countries like India, which reject the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, ought to be denied all enrichment and reprocessing technology.

Whereas Delhi estimated that the nuclear deal amounted to a tacit US acceptance of its nuclear weapon status, the opposite seems to be happening -- a tightening of screws. While India hoped that the massive business opportunities in the Indian nuclear market would prompt avaricious Americans to jettison their non-proliferation agenda, Washington shall have it both ways -- lucrative business as well as a reinvigorated NPT regime. All is not lost even if Delhi's maximalist claims about the nuclear deal stand badly exposed. There is a net gain insofar as India can at least import nuclear fuel and reactors for its needs overcoming the 35-year US embargo.

Clinton sought fresh Indian reassurances to import US nuclear reactors worth billions of dollars in the near term. The Indians sound self-righteous by claiming the US is rolling back the nuclear deal. Actually, the Bush administration was transparent that the US hoped to bring India into the nuclear non-proliferation regime. But Indian discourses almost uniformly pillory Obama as the villain of the piece.

Where does the US-India relationship go from here? The unveiling during Clinton's visit of a new strategic dialogue architecture intended to take US-India relations to a higher level of 3.0 – to use Clinton's phrase – covering non-proliferation, security, education, health and development underscores the Obama administration's commitment to the partnership with India. Indeed, Washington has little reason to be apprehensive about the prospects of US-India relationship.

New Delhi has few options and less inclination to shift from its US-centric foreign policy. India's political class is largely 'pro-US', especially the ruling Congress party's 'GenNext'. The main opposition, Bharatiya Janata Party, and its affiliates too are "pro-US". The Left parties, which clamored for an "independent foreign policy", are yet to recover from their huge defeat in the recent parliamentary poll. The Indian corporate media and the middle class root for Amrika.

En route to Delhi, Clinton thoughtfully interacted with the Indian corporate czars in Mumbai who keenly await the end-user deal to break into weapons production in collaboration with the US military-industrial complex. No doubt, Washington knows a thing or two about how India's political economy works.

Last, but not the least, the US can always count on the umbilical chords of social kinship that tie Delhi elites to the Indian diaspora in North America. Thus, the saga of US-Indian relationship remains seamless. Differences over climate change or the Doha round are transient. Obama should know the US is irreplaceable as 21st century India's number one strategic partner.

The writer is a former ambassador

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M K Bhadrakumar