August 10, 2014

India has to revive US ties

C Uday Bhaskar says India has to revive US ties
C Uday Bhaskar   |   Mail Today  |   New Delhi, August 9, 2014 | UPDATED 10:52 IST
India-US relations have come into focus against the backdrop of the two recent visits to Delhi of senior members of the Obama cabinet. US Secretary of State John Kerry and his colleague, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel made the first high level political contact with the new Indian government to finalise the agenda for the Obama-Modi meeting scheduled for September in Washington DC.


This bi-lateral relationship underwent a major transformation in late 2008 when the long festering nuclear nettle was resolved through a complex modus vivendi that accorded India an exceptional status in the global nuclear framework - and the deeply embedded 'estrangement' was expected to lead to progressively more robust engagement.

At the time, the UPA government led by the Congress included the left parties as part of the coalition and the nature of that debate is instructive. The US had provided India a rare opportunity for a geo-political and strategic accommodation which was in Delhi's abiding interest but the domestic political wrangling exuded little perspicacity. A zero-sum game ensued and neither the Congress, hobbled by the Left, nor the BJP in the opposition could evolve an objective and informed bi-partisan consensus on matters of deep politico-strategic import.

But for the external interlocutor, even the possibility of a less prickly relationship between India and the US had the desired effect in enhancing Delhi's credibility. It may be recalled that India's strategic relevance rose-and within Asia, the nuances were felt from China and Japan through to West Asia. Yet at a time when the Indian boat seemed to be rising, the hand on the tiller wavered, the waters for sure roiled by the global financial turbulence of that period and rank political diffidence.

In the intervening years, the UPA II government and the Obama administration were differently distracted and much of the hope was belied. The low-point in the bi-lateral was the Devyani episode where an Indian diplomat was treated in an extremely inappropriate manner and many of the latent anti-US anxieties in India came to the surface.

However to the credit of the two sides, quiet diplomacy has restored the relationship to a more even keel and the election of PM Modi has kindled fresh hope that the much needed political traction will be infused into what is a very critical bi-lateral. This hope flickered through the Kerry and Hagel visits despite that fact that India chose to stay outside the global trade facilitation agreement in that very week, much to US disappointment.


A brief review would indicate that on the major political, trade-economic and security-strategic issues, it is more of dissonance than consensus that animates the bi-lateral relationship. From Russia and Ukraine, to Israel-Gaza and the WTO amongst other recent developments, it is evident that Delhi and Washington have divergent assessments about how these issues affect their core national interests and security.

Yet paradoxically, there is a correspondence over the central security concerns that each nation has prioritised. Over the last decade, both the US and India have flagged terrorism, non-state groups, deviant states, radical ideologies, weapons of mass destruction and the rise of China and have sought to either manage or contain these challenges - with limited success. Both have a shared interest in an equitable global trading system.

While the transactional element is no doubt the tangible indicator of the robustness of the bi-lateral - often quantified in trade, technology and related fiscal indicators, as also in empathetic portico-diplomatic engagement - the deeper relevance of India and the US to each other is existential.

US Secretary of State John Kerry with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

A stable and mutually beneficial bi-lateral relationship is central to the management and realisation of the anxieties and aspirations respectively, of the two largest democracies notwithstanding their divisive, domestic socio-political constraints. This was at the core of the radical Bush imitative in July 2005 to recast the troubled bi-lateral in a more normative manner and PM Manmohan Singh at the time was able to stay the course despite the many handicaps and banana peels that threatened to derail the process.


For India, a robust relationship with the US is more critical than it is for the latter. This is a reality that needs to be internalised in the Indian polity and the attempt to advance the relationship by stealth was a major shortcoming of the UPA government. The NDA under PM Modi has the template outlined by PM Vajpayee post May 1998 as a guide. The challenge is to build on this and the Kerry-Hagel visits augur well.

It would be misleading to infer that for India, realizing even a part of the much hyped potential for a more robust relationship with the US is a binary choice that will come at the expense of Moscow. India is currently in a favourable strategic orientation wherein all the major powers and clusters (such as the EMU and ASEAN) are supportive of a prosperous and credible India. The current dynamic of globalisation impels wide-spectrum engagement and subsumes complex contradictions. The China-Japan relationship is illustrative.

The too frequently invoked and hence diluted term 'strategic partnership' has become ubiquitous in the Indian context. But the reality is that Moscow has in the past and will in the near future have a distinctive relevance for Delhi. In like manner.

Improving ties with the US is not to be reduced to an anti-China posture. But there is little doubt that India's ability to engage with Beijing will be significantly enabled if it demonstrates the political confidence and clarity to pursue concurrent relationships notwithstanding their inherently contradictory texture. The ball is in the Modi court.

The writer is a strategic analyst

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

India needs to learn to stand up for itself.