US and India can’t afford ‘unforced errors’ | ht view | Hindustan Times
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US and India can’t afford ‘unforced errors’

The search for the ‘right’ ambassador this time has taken on an urgency rarely associated with the process before, with even New Delhi slipping in a chit or two of its own, Yashwant Raj writes.

ht view Updated: Apr 09, 2014 02:31 IST
Yashwant Raj

United States senator Mark Warner likes his job and doesn’t want to be considered for the position of US ambassador to India, which fell vacant recently after Nancy Powell’s resignation.

There is a need for someone with an “exceptional background, profile (and) … clout”, said the Democrat co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, the largest such country-specific group.

Powell’s resignation has set off a race for advice and suggestions to the administration. US-India Business Council (USIBC) president Ron Somers thought Warner would make a great candidate, but the senator politely reminded everyone he is seeking a second term.

But there is no shortage of names. Former deputy secretary of defence Ash Carter, who handled the issue of export restrictions for India, is a favourite for some India experts at Washington DC think-tanks.

The search for the ‘right’ ambassador this time has taken on an urgency rarely associated with the process before, with even New Delhi slipping in a chit or two of its own.

That’s how USAID administrator Rajiv Shah is believed to have entered the fray. If the US could send Chinese-origin Gary Locke to Beijing, why not Shah to New Delhi?

The Chinese soured on Locke quite quickly, but that is lost on most people rooting for Shah. His Gujarati origins, however, do make him a tempting choice.

Picture this: One Gujarati at 7 Race Course Road, another a few kilometres down the road at Roosevelt House, the US ambassador’s residence. And another Gujarati a few time zones away in Washington DC — assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal.

There’s nothing wrong with this picture, except that it seems too pretty, with the Locke effect hovering overhead — an ‘unforced error’ India and the US can’t afford.

Senate India Caucus’ Republican co-chair John Cornyn has said the two countries must aim low, look for short-term goals to get the relationship out of this present mess. For no fault of hers possibly, Powell didn’t have a smooth tenure. Can India and the US afford Powell/Locke 2.0?

Frank Wisner, a former US ambassador to India, believes Narendra Modi’s election will present the relationship a unique set of challenges.

Those who will run the country with Modi, he said, “are people we (in the US) don’t know”, not dealt with them before — the Vajpayee group was almost a generation ago. The generational change just adds to a growing list of challenges before the two countries that are struggling to save a marriage just a day after the honeymoon has ended.

Barack Obama’s Harvard classmate and tough-talking trade representative Mike Froman may announce sanctions any day now to force India’s acquiescence to the US trade regime. And the Devyani Khobragade row continues, often with little prods from Indian-born US attorney Preet Bharara.

Among the most worrying challenges, however, is the apparent drop in enthusiasm for the relationship in the White House.

Powell’s selection — despite her long years of experience in the region — was seen as a consequence of this diminishing interest.

“Else, presidents are known to tap heavy-hitters for such postings with the ability to pick up the phone and call the White House,” said a former administration official.

They are often plucked from among the presidents’ top fund-raisers or political heavyweights, such as Democratic senator Max Baucus, who has succeeded Locke in China.

Experts say they would like to see a nominee whose selection signals the White House’s readiness to take back control of the relationship. Then wait for the new government in Delhi to make the next move.