Is there a sting in the tail-end of the Barack Obama presidency when it comes to Washington’s attitude towards India and Pakistan? If what’s been placed on the record in recent days is any indication, there may be movement away from the default de-escalation statements directed towards India to one that pays attention to New Delhi’s concerns.
When US national security adviser Susan Rice spoke to her Indian counterpart Ajit Doval this week, there was the usual diplomatic line about a “shared commitment with India to pursuing peace and regional stability.” But there was also the pointed “expectation that Pakistan take effective action to combat and delegitimize United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities, including Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and their affiliates.” That conversation was recapitulated by the White House spokesperson on Thursday, though once again limned with how America values “the important partnership” with Pakistan. But he did also refer, as Rice did, to the new standard.
There is a freshness to this stance and while it may be born partly out of frustration with Pakistan, much of the pivot can be attributed to the occupant of the White House.
Daily developments across West Asia, and with regard to Russia, don’t really make for pleasant briefings for the American president. However, if there is a relationship that he has taken forward and fostered, it’s certainly the ties forged with India during the nearly eight years of his administration’s tenure.
This isn’t just about his personal equation with Prime Minister Nardenra Modi, since the first State Dinner hosted during the Obama presidency was for then PM Manmohan Singh. This hasn’t been a consistently comradely journey, as matters like that involving diplomat Devyani Khobragade in New York, marked a period when you had to hunt for the good will.
But the rapid recovery from that low to upping the engagement showed where the intent of the administration was. As he enters the last four months of occupying the Oval Office, this is not a legacy that Obama will easily forfeit.
The onus to stay calm, that was once always upon New Delhi, appears to have been shifted by the Obama administration to Islamabad. That the surgical strikes undertaken by Indian special forces along the Line of Control aren’t the point of contention in the voices being heard from the administration is an indicator of how the balance has tilted, even though that process has been gradual.
But there will remain red lines that will not be crossed in Washington, and as all those comments from the state department, and the White House, show that relates to alienating Pakistan. If the presence of Osama bin Laden in an Abbottabad safe house wasn’t cause enough, there’s little chance that a Hafeez Saeed or Masood Azhar will precipitate a breach between the US and Pakistan that cannot be bridged. No number of online petitions to have America declare Pakistan a state sponsor of terror will alter that reality.
A White House with Hillary Clinton as its incumbent will ensure continuity, and that may be comforting for New Delhi, but not always pleasant. If Republican Donald Trump gets into the Oval Office, he may carry along the baggage of flame-throwing but much of that was doused at the official position adopted by the Republican National Convention on Pakistan: “Our working relationship is a necessary, though sometimes difficult, benefit to both.”
There may be sporadic support in the US Congress, but if India expects the US to punish Pakistan, that could be as imminent as a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, which has languished at the United Nations for nearly two decades. Instead, India can look to leverage the diplomatic space that it now has to manoeuvre within.
That has come via the American president. Obama has not just removed the hyphen that defined America’s stance towards the Subcontinent, but has instead added an exclamation mark to the India-US bilateral paradigm. Whether this change will continue to punctuate those ties or will stop with his departure, will only begin to unfold in January 2017.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal