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Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Hindustan Times
New Delhi, June 24, 2009
There has been much concern in New Delhi that the new United States president doesn’t have India on his mind. The positive view was that Barack Obama just had too much on his plate. The negative view was that India just didn’t figure on his map. Obama’s campaign references to India revolved around Kashmir. His only presidential statement was that US companies that moved jobs to Bangalore should be penalised.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to put this to rest recently in the administration’s first high-level policy speech on India. As she made clear, Obama has big plans for India. “My hope and President Obama’s hope [is] that the next stage in our countries’ relationship will see a dramatic expansion in our common agenda and a greater role for India in solving global challenges.” The real issue is whether India, with its weak strategic structure and sovereignty-obsessed polity, can bear the burden of Washington’s expectations.

Over the past few months, New Delhi has been mulling over the bilateral relationship that had crested under George W Bush. A decline in this relationship was inevitable. For one, something as geopolitically big as the Indo-US nuclear deal doesn’t come around every decade. For another, the exponential increase in China’s stature following the global economic crisis would squeeze India’s space.

While India fingered its worry beads, Obama tossed pebbles to see what ripples they would create in New Delhi. In a letter that Obama wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh before he was elected, the new president signalled that he wanted to know “how the US and India can work together to address the regional and global challenges that no country alone can solve”. This was ‘the central question’ when it came to India. This was the biggie for Obama.

Though the president’s oratory is soaring, he is much more about crafting solutions to problems. ‘Yes we can’ is about building roads on the ground, not castles in the air. At the bureaucratic level, there was scepticism as to whether India could be counted on to be a constructive player. New Delhi’s past record was that of a diplomatic wrecking ball, best at blocking initiatives or avoiding hard decisions. The new administration’s initial experience supported the India-doubters.

New Delhi played hardball on climate change and Afghanistan-Pakistan. It torpedoed the Doha trade talks in a particularly obnoxious way. The defence relationship ran aground of textual nitpicking. The new Indian ambassador to Washington seemed from the old school — shrill and combative. At inter-agency meetings, even the most consistent backer of New Delhi in the US system, the Pentagon, began saying that perhaps it was time to put away the India file and move on.

There were other problems. The administration was short of personnel. Obama had his hands full fire-fighting on the economic front and tackling Afghanistan and North Korea. But there was evidence that the very top retained faith in India. One was the appointment of Obama loyalist Tim Roemer as ambassador to New Delhi. As Washington lobbyists point out, he has the ultimate diplomatic asset: the ability to phone the Oval Office directly. The administration also reassured various Indian officials who visited the US about the relationship.

India also laid out proposals, especially in the non-proliferation field, to show it understood that de facto nuclear weapons status is a matter of give and take. PM’s special envoy, Shyam Saran, said three months ago that India would be more favourably inclined to the Proliferation Security Initiative if it expanded its ambit to include A.Q. Khan-type activity, that a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) linked to global disarmament was palatable, and if the US supported a verification procedure India was “prepared to work together for the early conclusion of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty”.

Even in climate change, the two sides made progress on green tech collaboration. And cooperation on counter-terrorism has been good enough to make CIA Chief Leon Panetta choose India as his first overseas port of call.

What proved most effective in silencing the India-doubters, however, was Singh’s electoral victory. Friction exists between all countries, but the rough edges can be smoothened out if there is political will. The surprise result had an electrifying effect in the beltway.

The Obama administration was cautious when it first began to contemplate what it could do with India. But its enthusiasm is growing rapidly. The mentality in the India government had been to just hold on to the gains of the Bush years. Post-election, New Delhi seems to be emerging from its bunker. Washington knows this won’t be easy. Clinton noted that government-to-government ties needed “to catch up with our people-to-people and economic ties”.

Everyone expects the reprocessing talks to run into heavy weather. Climate change will also see fisticuffs, especially if the US caps its carbon emissions and demands India follow suit.

Obama’s campaign advisor on South Asia, Bruce Riedel, has no doubts that the US president has ambitious plans. “Obama is ready to take the relationship to a new level,” he says. And unlike Bush or Bill Clinton, who did not visit India until their second term,” says Riedel, “I believe you will see him in Delhi before 2012 and maybe before 2010.”