Indian Bonhomie

Indian Bonhomie

Are the United States and India destined to become strategic partners?


With the fanfare that befits a visit of the President of the United States, Obama’s three-day trip to India has come to a close. It included the obligatory dinner with the president of India, Pratibha Patil, and a wreath laying ceremony at Rajghat, the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and a stream of high-level visits to his suite at one of New Delhi’s toniest hotels. Obama, in his speech to a joint session of the Indian parliament, made a number of deft references to Gandhi’s legacy in both India and the United States and made appropriate nods to key members of the Indian literary, social and political pantheon. Indeed both he and the First Lady managed to acquit themselves with much poise and grace.

India’s normally feisty and contentious media outlets, both print and electronic, have sought to outdo one another in terms of their coverage of the visit. Apart from a small number of those within India’s dwindling left-wing parties his visit was well regarded across the political spectrum. When a spokesman for the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) oddly chose to upbraid the president for his failure to roundly and publicly condemn Pakistan for its continuing dalliance with terror, his party was quick to disassociate itself from his remarks. Only a few political commentators suggested that his visit was long on symbols and short on substance; a number of their colleagues dismissed this analysis as being churlish and myopic.


The obvious bonhomie that this trip has again generated in Indo-US relations aside, what, if anything, was actually accomplished? Certainly President Obama did not leave empty-handed, particularly as far as his domestic constituency is concerned. He consummated promises of $10 billion in new Indian investment in the United States, which according to some calculations are likely to yield at least 50,000 jobs. And, on the basis of a detailed joint communiqué, it appears that he and his team have managed to significantly narrow down differences that had surfaced on questions of supplier culpability in the aftermath of India’s passage of a civilian nuclear liability bill last month. Addressing this nagging issue may now make it possible for key American construction companies to invest in India’s very substantial planned civilian nuclear architecture.

But how much did India in fact gain from this much anticipated, but potentially contentious trip? Unlike George W. Bush, who forthrightly embraced India as a strategic partner, up until recently, Obama had evinced little similar interest in the South Asian nation. Indeed during his first year in office, one or two careless statements raised Indian hackles. His special representative for Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, much to the dismay and even anger of the Indian foreign policy establishment, had suggested that the disputed territory of Kashmir be included in his professional remit. Sharp Indian diplomatic reactions quickly led him, and the administration, to backtrack. Subsequently, some key officials within the State Department expressed misgivings about the wisdom of moving ahead with India to firm up the US-India civilian nuclear deal, citing continuing nonproliferation concerns. Finally, in a most maladroit fashion, the joint communiqué from Beijing, in the wake of President Obama’s first visit to the People’s Republic of China, granted India’s long standing adversary a role in reducing tensions in South Asia. All of these remarks and suggestions taken together helped contribute to significant doubts about the administration’s outlook toward India, an emerging power in Asia—and beyond.

Fortunately, after this visit, if the two states can now carry through a fraction of the agreements they have reached, they should remain, at a bare minimum, on an even keel. If they can go further, this could well become a key relationship for both nations. Unsurprisingly, to the delight of most thoughtful Indian commentators and policymakers, in his speech to the joint session of parliament, President Obama carefully spelled out his hopes of India’s joining an expanded United Nations Security Council in the years ahead. Inevitably, those within the Indian foreign policy establishment who harbor misgivings about the United States suggested that this formulation was far too little and far too late. That said, the vast majority of India’s attentive public argued that the timing and location of his statement was fraught with significance. No previous American president had come so close to making such an explicit statement and especially in the setting of a joint session of the Indian parliament.

Of course as he also underscored in his speech, “with increased power comes increased responsibility.” Obviously, for the United States to prove able and willing to push for the reform of the Security Council, India will now need to demonstrate that it has departed from the reflexive hostility that characterized its behavior toward America at the United Nations during much of the Cold War. It will have that opportunity over the next two years as it has just been elected as a non-permanent member of the same body.

Apart from holding out this promise, the president made good on an at-least-two-decade-long Indian demand, removing major Indian governmental organizations, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) from the “entity list”; now they can purchase a panoply of dual-use technologies from the United States. In a related vein, the president has also agreed to help India join a host of multilateral export-control organizations including the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), an exclusive club of countries which attempt to set norms for and control global trade in nuclear materials.

Given the seeming willingness of the two sides to cooperate on a range of bilateral and multilateral matters, is a strategic convergence between them imminent? It would be irresponsible to suggest that such an outcome is all but inevitable. The president, in his speech to parliament, did not shy away from mentioning Indo-US differences about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Though India hardly welcomes Iran’s attempts to pursue a clandestine nuclear weapons program it can ill afford to also suspend its ties to the country. India’s acute dependence on Iran for fossil fuels, the presence of a substantial Shia population in India’s heartland and its shared concern with Iran about preventing a return of the Taliban to Afghanistan militate against any abrupt disruption of the diplomatic relationship. Consequently, while it may prove willing to support targeted UN-sponsored sanctions on Iran it will not undertake or endorse any precipitate unilateral action against the country.

Nor for that matter, were India’s policymakers entirely happy with President Obama’s anodyne formulation that Pakistan must cease to serve as a “safe haven for terrorists.” In their view, Pakistan is far more than that—it is an epicenter of terror. On this issue at least, the two sides remain far apart. Even India’s mild-mannered minister, Manmohan Singh, felt constrained at the joint press conference to state that India would not tolerate “terror induced coercion.”

These differences notwithstanding, the Indo-US relationship has now become multi-dimensional. Despite irritants, the sheer density of diplomatic, political and strategic contacts means that India and America will continue to move closer together. President Obama’s three day sojourn in Mumbai and New Delhi has certainly given the relationship added momentum.