India-US Relations at Crossroads
The killing of Osama Bin Laden came at a time when India-US relations were at a low point of the roller coaster ride to which these relations have often been compared. After the visit of President Obama, which kindled hopes of raising those relations to a higher level, it appeared as though India was distancing itself from Washington to assert its independence. The US too had other preoccupations, particularly the "Arab Spring"in which an Indian partnership was ruled out. The postponement of the strategic dialogue, India's vote on Libya in the United Nations Security Council, India's overtures to Iran and its role in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit were seen as straws in the wind. To crown it all, India announced that it had shortlisted two European fighters, ignoring American demarches at the highest level that acquisition of US fighters would contribute to the strategic relationship between the two countries.
While India has maintained that the choice of the fighters was motivated solely by the technical specifications, many strategic thinkers in the US and India felt that India had missed an opportunity to cement the strategic relationship at a time when India faced multiple threats. But an Indian-American executive of one of the firms, which unsuccessfully bid for the Indian contract for 126 Multi- Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA), was surprisingly unperturbed by the news of the Indian decision to go for one of the European fighters.He said that the US had known for some time that India was apprehensive about the US fighters because of the US involvement with Pakistan. In the event of a war with Pakistan, India would be disadvantaged by the superior capability that Pakistan might have already obtained from the US.. Moreover, there would be many linkages between the suppliers of aircraft to India and Pakistan. But he said that he was much relieved that India had not chosen the Russian aircraft. The US would gain substantial profits from the Indian deal with Europe and, therefore, he saw no reason for the new deal to have any impact on India-US relations.The joint ventures between the two countries and proposals for Indian investments would balance the loss in the aircraft deal. Even the delay in orders for nuclear reactors on account of the Nuclear Liability Bill would be of no consequence, he said.
On the contrary, the resignation of the US Ambassador to India, Tim Roemer, was clearly linked to the strenuous efforts he had put in to persuade India to purchase the planes from his country. His parting message that he was satisfied with the state of relations between the two countries did not carry conviction. His embarrassment about the revelations in Wikileaks about his assessment of the events and people in India would have also contributed to his predicament.
The full story of the postponement of Hillary Clinton's visit to India for continuing the strategic dialogue has not yet come to light. Some speculate that it was the fear of direct pressure on the MCRA deal that prompted India to seek a postponement. The visit is now scheduled to take place in July 2011.
The Nuclear Liability Bill was a big blow to the US businesses, which were poised to get a captive contract worth ten billion dollars as a direct outcome of the nuclear deal. Promises given to find a way around the liability of suppliers by elaborating rules on the bill have remained unfulfilled. The US India Business Council and other business groups must be frustrated that the heavy investments made in getting the nuclear deal through gave no returns. The Fukushima disaster has also cast its shadow on the use of nuclear power.
For the US, "the most unkindest cut of all" must be the role played by India at the BRICS summit in China. The summit sought to undermine the role of the dollar and also embraced the Chinese economic and financial agenda. India's abstention on the vote on Libya in the Security Council was a meaningless gesture against intervention, when it had nothing to gain from Gaddafi and when the Arabs and the Africans had no qualms about supporting the west. The BRICS rubbed the point in, much to the chagrin of the US and NATO. The fact that India gained little in the summit and the subsequent bilateral talks with China gave India no alibi for taking these positions. China diluted the position of the other four in BRICS on Security Council reform, making it even less supportive than the US position.
India's overtures to Iran, leading to a possible visit to Tehran by the Prime Minister must also be of concern to the US. Even in the best of times, the hoards of American think tankers, who came to Delhi had only one question to ask of India - whether India would be willing to dissuade Iran from taking the nuclear weapon route. Our standard reply that we have a civilisational link with Iran and even today, we meet a large chunk of our energy needs from Iran has never impressed them.The revival of the pipeline must be anathema to the Americans.
The US too has contributed to the decline in the relationship by seemingly unintended acts of omission and commission. Airport officials did not mean any offence to India, when in two separate and unconnected incidents, they were discourteous to two Indian envoys, but the Indian media played them up as deliberate anti-Indian moves. The treatment meted out to the Indian students, who became the victims of an education scam did not help either. President Obama's remark that the Americans will not need to go to India for cheap health care was not taken kindly in India. None of these had a any substantive content, but the cumulative effect was far from favourable to the atmospherics.
In actual fact, however, the two countries are quietly working on many issues of vital concern to them. Much more needs to be done to coordinate efforts for stability in West Asia and Africa, not to speak of the traditional areas of cooperation, such as nuclear non-proliferation, climate change, piracy and disaster management.The post -Fukushima concerns on nuclear safety is another area for joint research and effort. India has more to gain from the US than from any other country at this time. Frittering away the gains of the Bush era and the early days of Obama for the sake of appearing to be distancing ourselves from the west may hurt our interests. If the US begins to be vengeful and strike where it hurts most like technology transfer, Indian American interests, Indian education and work visas, the losses will be substantial.
The killing of Osama bin Laden is an opportunity and a challenge for India-US relations, though its importance should not be exaggerated. The elimination of the most significant symbol of international terrorism should give us reason for comfort. Though the Indian Prime Minister was not on the list of the world leaders, whom Obama called soon after his success in bringing a closure to 9/11, Dr. Manmohan Singh reached out to him in a matter of days and presumably congratulated him. He must have expressed the hope that Pakistan would now be more receptive to India's demand for bringing the culprits of 26/11 to book. The US itself has been forthcoming in revealing that ISI operatives may have been behind the Mumbai attack.
The perceived deterioration in the relations between the US and Pakistan may have no impact on India-US relations, essentially because the present phase will be temporary, if not imaginary.US-Pakistan relations will return to normal in a very short time as they have a logic and resilience going back to half a century. India cannot step into the role that Pakistan had assumed in 2001both because of the nature of our polity and our national pride.
A thought has also arisen that India should rush to normalise relations with Pakistan and be supportive to Pakistan at this difficult juncture. In fact, such a suggestion was made by some at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They felt that India and Pakistan should form a united front against the Soviet Union to stop the intervention in Afghanistan. It may we ll have happened if Indira Gandhi had not returned to power before such a move gained currency. Any effort to befriend Pakistan at this point in misplaced sympathy will be dangerous. If anything, India should go slow in its ebngagement with Pakistan till Pakistan sets its house in order after the trauma of Abbottabad.
The best hope is that the present phase is the inevitable descent of the roller coaster before it gains momentum again to climb even higher. The imperatives of cooperation are much stronger than the impulse to appear distant from the Dhritarashtra's embrace that the US connection is considered to be..