Just as the United States’ assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal became the first point of contact for Washington with the new regime in India, America was also in the process of announcing the appointment of Kathleen Stephens to head its Embassy in Chanakyapuri.
Her designation? A full-blown Chargé d’Affaires ad interim.
That’s somewhat telling of the ad hocism that has afflicted India-US ties in the Obama years.
Even before the Lok Sabha election results had been announced, the previous US Ambassador Nancy Powell had retired, partly due to the frost that had chilled ties with the then chief minister of Gujarat. Since Powell was a career diplomat, it’s hard to argue that her stance was contrary to that of the State Department.
The Gujarati-origin Biswal tweeted her appreciation of the availability of dhokla at the inauguration of the NDA government. Though symbolic, it’s also fascinating that she chose to start following Narendra Modi on Twitter only when the results of the election were being broadcast and it was obvious he was to be the next prime minister. Her boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, showed a little more alacrity, joining the ranks of the millions of Modi’s followers three days earlier. That’s food for thought even if a thaw isn’t imminent. As Biswal made the rounds of the corridors of South Block, despite the 46 degrees plus heat outside, warmth was probably missing. With multiple setbacks, the Indian summer of bonhomie brought in by Bill Clinton and George Bush has yet to set back in.
The prime minister may have accepted an invitation to visit the White House in September, combining that trip with his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It would have been churlish to ignore the fusillade of invitations to visit, since commerce with America remains a significant factor in India’s economic future, as Washington has transitioned from tirades to trade.
But in terms of engagement that goes beyond the transactional, the United States has to play catch up. Before the American howdy in New Delhi there was the Chinese ni hao offered by its foreign minister Wang Yi. Always pragmatic and eschewing the American tendency to be tendentious, China had cultivated Modi during his formerly pariah phase. Consequently, despite border issues and stapled visas, the new government will have had nearly half a dozen interactions with the boys from Beijing before that trend peaks with a summit meeting this winter.
Meanwhile, among the Western nations, Canada played a pioneering role in dealing directly with Gandhinagar, through the offices of its high commissioner in New Delhi, Stewart Beck. In fact, an invitation was extended to Modi to visit the country by a trade group in the presence of a smiling Canadian immigration minister. That Modi chose not to do so is probably because such a trip to North America would have served to highlight his visaless status vis-à-vis the US.
Australia wants to get matey too. It’s not surprising that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, during a bilateral visit to Canada recently, spoke of a potential centre-right coalition of countries, led by Canada, in the context of combating the Obama administration’s carbon tax crusade. Abbott’s list of the like-minded also included England, New Zealand and, interestingly, India.
Similarly, there will be a bias towards Japan and Israel. And a multitude of multilateral fora, BRICS, Asean, Saarc, et al, will offer opportunities.
In recent months, the Obama administration systematically went slow on negotiations on matters like a bilateral investment treaty, since it considered the now-ousted UPA government to be running on fumes. Now, Modi’s mandarins may well argue with respect to the Obama White House that if it quacks like one and limps along like one, it is indeed a lame duck. In effect, New Delhi may have to wait until January 2017 to catch the drift and truly revitalise ties.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years. He is the author of The Candidate.
The views expressed by the author are personal