Indo-US Relations: Uncertain Times

Published: December 13, 2013 - 15:44 Updated: February 3, 2014 - 00:41

Despite the initial high points, economic policies and geostrategic concerns have made America and India wary of each other

Seema Sirohi, Washington, DC

India needs more strategic clarity and less strategic ambiguity in dealing with the United States to strengthen the relationship while managing the differences, no matter who becomes the next prime minister.

The coming year will test the capacity of Indo-US relations to absorb the shocks and the ability to keep building. Dissonance, already detectable on various policy fronts—from Afghanistan to Syria, from Bangladesh to the Maldives—may grow amid a change of government in India and benign neglect by the White House. Add to this the simmering discontent over India’s ‘unfriendly’ economic policies, and the distance between the two capitals appears to grow.

There is no doubt that policy missteps, neglect and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s curious detachment in his second term, coupled with President Barack Obama’s preoccupation with other regions, slowed bilateral progress. Singh either lost control or interest or both after the do-or-die energy of the first term to complete the India-US civil nuclear deal. US analysts say Singh’s key advisers thought distance from Washington would help them soften Beijing but what they got was a long Chinese incursion instead.

The venture cost two good years and helped regenerate “old think” on India in Washington. The US adjusted its expectations and some of the goodwill evaporated when Washington realized India will not “come out” arm-in-strategic arm with its American love because of “what people might say”— especially the people in China.

The net result is stasis, suspicion and disappointment. Even though Singh belatedly tried to inject vigour with a visit in September, the US establishment knows it must wait for the next prime minister for real movement. Some are hoping for Narendra Modi if only because they think he will make decisions, while others are wary of the baggage he carries. Goldman Sachs and a couple of other big American players can’t hold their excitement. In their assessment, a Modi victory will mean economic resurgence.

India’s next prime minister—whoever it may be—will have to bring back clarity on maintaining strong relations with the United States. When relations with Washington are robust, India’s strategic space with its neighbours expands. This is not an argument against engaging China. But no country should be seen as a veto on India’s decision to engage another. 

If the new prime minister is Modi, the atmospherics in Washington should be interesting. The Coalition Against Genocide, a group of 40 Indian American leftist and Muslim organizations that came together in the wake of killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, is once again active. In the past, it has opposed the idea of Modi visiting the United States, mounting pressure through the wide Indian American student body in various US universities. Recently, it claimed to have exposed a BJP-linked organization that allegedly used names of Republican Congressmen as supporters without their consent for an event designed to promote Modi. 

The Modi supporters in America have had egg on their faces before for their lack of sophistication and tendency to bully. They simply can’t match the deep bench of Indian leftists sitting on university faculties whose intellectual heft is greater. If Modi gets elected, the Obama administration will have to walk a delicate line as it deals with the intense opposition of many Indian Americans to Modi while trying to engage India. The Pakistan lobby will no doubt enjoy playing the game. 

India and the United States will continue to disagree on how best to deal with Pakistan, a country Singh told Obama was still the “epicenter” of terrorism

But, more important, Indo-US relations will be affected by the impending drawdown of NATO troops in Afghanistan. In some ways, 2014 has become a “dirty” number for Indian diplomats as they contemplate the possible fallout. Pakistan will loom extra large on Washington’s horizon as Rawalpindi maneuvers various factions of the Taliban and Haqqani network for dominance in the wake of US departure. New Delhi is justifiably worried that freedom from the American presence will embolden Pakistan-linked terrorists in Afghanistan to launch attacks in India. 

India has watched in dismay the Obama administration sharply change its rhetoric towards Pakistan in 2013 as it searched for a face-saving exit. From loudly denouncing the ISI’s terrorist links in Congressional hearings and warning Pakistan privately that it could be declared a state sponsor of terrorism, US officials suddenly shifted tack and became quiet on the subject, at least in public. The need for Pakistan’s cooperation in 2014 for a safe exit outweighs pretty much everything else in the big calculation.  

India knows Pakistan will get kid-glove treatment from the US in the near term. The Americans will appease the Pakistanis, according to Indian officials. Obama received Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October with considerable warmth, promising an “enduring partnership” based on mutual respect and trust. He talked fondly of learning to make daal and keema in college. Whether staged or deeply felt, the message was positive and the intent clear—despite the evidence that Osama bin Laden and nearly all key terrorists were found in Pakistan, the US will maintain its carrot-heavy policy of aid and weapons. In other words, not much will change in the 60-plus years of Americans trying to bribe Pakistanis into sense.   

India appears to have internalized the inevitable and is working on the margins to help Americans maintain a presence in Afghanistan post-2014. Obama asked Manmohan Singh to engage more in Afghanistan when they met in September at the Oval Office. It appears India subsequently did use its influence with President Hamid Karzai to urge him to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US. A continued US presence and counter-terrorism efforts are in India’s interest. 

Hard as it may be to overcome the recent past when Americans and the British actively kept India out at Pakistan’s behest—and still do from key Afghanistan parleys—New Delhi will have to scramble together a coherent policy, even take bold steps to ensure its security even if it means making Americans uneasy. There is no evidence the Pakistan military-ISI combine has had a real change of heart about India and though US officials have been faithfully trying to convince India otherwise. 

India and the United States will continue to disagree on how best to deal with Pakistan, a country Singh told Obama was still the “epicentre” of terrorism. But New Delhi can find satisfaction that Washington is far more realistic today about the ISI than it was after 9/11. The Pentagon and the US Congress are less willing to play make-believe. Once US troops are out, Capitol Hill may increase pressure on the White House to use different strokes on Pakistan.  

Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US, wrote in his recent book, Magnificent Delusions, that Obama told Pakistan army chief, Gen. Pervez Kayani, in October 2010 that his greatest concern was about extremists who target the US. “If a successful attack is launched by people or groups traced to Pakistan, my hands would be tied,” Obama said. “I want to deal with this in a way that is respectful for Pakistan’s sovereignty…the US is not interested in Pakistan being vulnerable. It cannot, however, accept that your strategic concerns should include support for murderous people.” 

Obama is cerebral and cold. Unlike previous presidents who developed genuine fondness for Pakistani generals, he has no illusions about Kayani or the military establishment. It is safe to say that large sections of Washington no longer trust the military-ISI combine. Whether that translates into a different policy from the same old money-for-nothing-and-weapons-for-free (to misuse the Dire Straits song) is unknown. There is no point in wasting time on this guessing game. 

Apart from Pakistan, India and the United States have also registered differences over Bangladesh where New Delhi feels Washington is getting too close for comfort with Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Zia is widely seen as someone who could bring in Islamists by another name while Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister, has taken a clear stand against them. But Washington says it would rather see Zia participate in the upcoming elections than not because her absence would render the elections illegitimate for the people. Zia is not making it easy and the two women are locked in a serious who-will-blink-first game. 

Such divergences don’t spell harmony for the India-US strategic partnership. They must be managed and managed well. Both countries will need focus and energy at the highest levels to tide over the speed-breakers. The one area, which can concentrate the mind, is the defence partnership with Washington. The US has moved fast on streamlining procedures and put India on a par with the G-8 countries in terms of releasing sensitive defence technology. The effort to co-produce weapon systems can be the next big idea—New Delhi could run with it and put the ballast back in the relationship. Nothing would build trust more than the two defence bureaucracies working together. 

Both countries must remember why they got into an embrace in the first place. It was for strategic reasons and those haven’t changed.

Despite the initial high points, economic policies and geostrategic concerns have made America and India wary of each other
Seema Sirohi, Washington, DC

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