There is a great deal of rhetoric flying around when it comes to India-US relations. In November 2010, addressing a joint session Parliament, President Barack Obama described the US India relationship as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.” Earlier this week, speaking to an American think tank Secretary of State John Kerry declared that the US and India should be “indispensable partners for the 21st century.”
The Indians haven’t been slouches either. It was, after all Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who termed India and the US as “natural allies.” The issue in Indo-American relations, however, has been the ability and will to translate rhetoric into policy and practice.
Most observers blame some “trust deficit” for the current state of Indo-US relations. Actually, the idea of “trust deficit” is merely a cover for the real problem – the lack of political will on either side to take the relationship between the two countries to the stage that the rhetoricians have been promising. Blame must be shared by both sides. India did let down the US when it passed a selfdefeating nuclear liability law which undermined the very basis on which the Indo-US nuclear deal was sold to the US public – the possibility of India acquiring significant US civil nuclear technology.
For its part, the Obama Administration, caught up in domestic turbulence and developments in East Asia and the Arab world, simply let the Indian ball drop. New Delhi was not worth the time, they felt, especially when it appeared that India had lost its economic oomph and its growth plummeted after 2010.
One of the big problems in the US-India relationships is the asymmetry between the two would-be partners. One is clearly the richest and most powerful nation in the world, the other a large and poor country whose performance in keeping its people healthy and free from hunger has little to commend for itself. An associated problem is that while the US is quite clear on what it wants from India, New Delhi is not so clear. You can blame the asymmetry for this, but there is also the problem of the lack of an institutional approach from the Indian side which would knit together a clearcut national strategy. We do have today the first government since 1984 to have a majority of its own, but as is well known the party that forms that government, has a plethora of views on the common issues of the day as evidenced by the activities of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, and the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh. The Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh will also have its say one of these days. Beyond consensus within the party, is the problem of building a unified policy platform across the nation.
From the point of view of the US, there are a range of issues that are being raised by Kerry in the strategic dialogue that is underway, beginning with the unhappiness at India’s stand on the issue of food subsidies at the WTO. The US is also looking to India to accommodate American commercial interests in pharmaceuticals, retail and financial services. In a subset of this, come concerns relating to the nuclear liability act and India’s persistent refusal to sign end user agreements that limit the sale of American military hardware to India.
For its part, India would certainly like US investment and technology and to open itself up to Indian service professionals.
But many of these are not in the hands of the US government. On the other hand, China and Japan have money and technology on offer. The Japanese have put in $10 billion for the North-South industrial and freight corridor.
Even the UK is willing to step into the Bangalore-Chennai corridor. In the case of the US, we do not have an easily recognisable commitment. In the past, whether it was in boosting Indian education or in transforming our agriculture, the US played a stellar role. Something similar is needed to put substance into the ties between two dissimilar partners.
There is a great deal of business the two countries need to do in the field of foreign and security policy. Many Indians believe the US is in it only to get India to balance off the rising power of China.
But we, too, need the US for the same reason – to balance China. It would be nice to believe that we can somehow be neutral in the emerging stand-off between China the US and Japan. But we cannot forget that we have a serious problems with China relating to our border and its policy of arming Pakistan. Worse, the military power deficit between China and India is growing, in some measure due to the dysfunctional nature of India’s national security machinery.
Unlike the US, with whom we have recently had problems on Bangladesh and Maldives, China follows a policy of displacing us in South Asia. The Modi government has shown foresight in seeking to re-establish Indian primacy in the region, and in this venture US help would be useful. It is only on the basis of a strong South Asian anchor can India play a significant extra-regional role.
Barring the issue of Pakistan, we do not have serious differences with the US, and Washington has, in the past decade, willing to accept South Asia as being part of India’s sphere of influence.
But our most important task is to determine and prioritise what we need from the US. Then we should evolve a strategy to get what we want. If we can do this, offering a trade concession here, or compromising on a point there, will be easier. No matter what the rhetoric is, at the end of the day, relations between nations are primarily transactional.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.
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