When the world’s two largest democracies hold an annual strategic dialogue and can only produce two anodyne agreements on air safety and cybersecurity, no one can say the relationship is prospering. There is a clear and obvious sense of drift in relations between India and the United States.
The nuclear deal is floundering on differences over India’s nuclear liability law and concerns about a new round of multilateral nuclear technology restrictions. The defence relationship is moving in an uncertain direction — and arms purchases are only one part of this purposeless drift. The economic relationship, hurt by slowing growth in both economies, needs a fillip. The two sides have over 20 dialogues that don’t seem to generate much in tangibles.
The stars are not particularly favourable for radical and revolutionary foreign policy moves. The Manmohan Singh government, sapped by inflation and corruption, struggles to make even relatively non-controversial policy moves and somehow stumbles on the few that it does carry out. The Barack Obama administration is struggling with an economy in shambles and heading into an attention-sapping presidential election.
The two biggest foreign policy concerns shared by the two countries are Pakistan and China. Washington and New Delhi have had difficulty seeing eye-to-eye on both. India felt that Mr Obama was overly cosy to China in his first year in office. It has been, at best, puzzled by twists and turns in US policy on Afghanistan and thus its derivative policy towards Pakistan. There is also a simple truth that the next stages of the Indo-US relationship are going to be tied up in long, slow administrative processes that won’t seize headlines and for which otherwise-engaged political leaders will have difficulty finding time. Dual-use technology and export control issues are extremely important — but they are also a red tape-regulation nightmare.
Nonetheless, Mr Obama’s visit last year made it clear that the US remained committed to the rise of India. India, which has found it still has many Cold Warriors alive and well in places, like its ministry of defence, has indicated through the numerous regional dialogues that it sees more harmony with US policies than it does with almost any other country.
The relationship, after all, may be drifting but it has experienced no ruptures or catfights. What New Delhi needs to remember, however, is that India’s rise is far from predetermined. It has enormous problems in keeping its economy growing, huge deficits in education and healthcare to fill, and a very tough neighbourhood to live in. The US is not the only country that can assist India in these areas. But no other country can provide assistance in each and every field and, even now, with more heft and capacity than the US.