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Friction in friendship

Headley chase Despite irritants, there’s still plenty of ballast in the relationship between the US and India. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri reports.

india Updated: Apr 18, 2010 23:40 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

When Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan, came to New Delhi in January he was astonished at the scepticism he saw about American President Barack Obama.

“Why does everyone here think Obama doesn’t like India? He loves you people,” he said.

Depending on whom you talk to, the Indo-US relationship is either sinking or drifting. New Delhi and Washington deal-
making once seemed the stuff of history. Today it’s the stuff of pettiness. This is all the more surprising, given the strong personal chemistry between President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. There are probably few leaders Obama holds in higher regard, say Washington sources.

Small Stuff
India had plenty of differences with the previous US President, George W. Bush, but those were subsumed in a larger vision. Says Amitabh Mattoo of Jawaharlal Nehru University: “Bush had a geo-strategic view of India. Obama sees us through the prism of several issues and what we can deliver on each of them. We agree with him on some. We don’t on others.”

The biggest of these small obstacles is Afghanistan or, more accurately, “AfPak”. No government wants the US to stay, fight and defeat the Taliban more than India.

But New Delhi fears the Obama administration is too willing to sacrifice Indian interests in its pursuit of an honourable retreat. Says Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund: “There is a Pakistan-centricity to US policy in the hope that Rawalpindi can help the US with an Afghan endgame.”

Then there’s the fracas over Lashkar-e-Tayyeba operative David Headley. India and the US signed a far-ranging counter-terrorism agreement last year. But India’s difficulty in understanding the US judicial process — for example, that Headley’s judge has a greater say on access than Obama — has made a bilateral success into a source of discord. More than one Indian official says it is “absurd” that the country’s most important foreign policy relationship is entangled in something so minor.

The list goes on. Climate change, nuclear nonproliferation and even the loose ends of the nuclear deal — in each area, the two governments struggle to find common ground.

Blame Game
Both governments can be faulted.

Obama has provided little political direction to the relationship, allowing the bureaucracy to capture the agenda. For his part, Singh has shown little of the vision that marked his first term.

India complains about being “rehyphenated” with Pakistan. But, notes ex-Indian envoy to the US Lalit Mansingh, “when Singh spends two-thirds of his bilateral with Obama talking about Pakistan, hyphenation is inevitable.”

India has few answers for the US’s many problems in Afghanistan. It backed Beijing’s attempt to wreck the Copenhagen climate summit. “Indian diplomacy, which showed some dexterity post-Cold War, is back to platitudes,” says Sumit Ganguly of the University of Indiana-Bloomington.

New Delhi even struggles to deliver on its own promises.

“We agree to military agreements and the nuclear liability Bill at the highest level,” says a retired senior Indian diplomat, adding “but fail to come through on them.”

Obama, on the other hand, is guilty of an unfocused India policy and broader foreign policy incoherence. His bureaucracy has stalled efforts to increase Indian access to dual-use technology and remove the last few nuclear sanctions. Says G. Parthasarathy of the Centre for Policy Research: “This administration has shown a basic lack of interest in Indian sensitivities and concerns.”

On Afghanistan, Obama’s public statements and his officials’ private assurances to India are contradictory. His genuflecting to China was a source of consternation. Dan Markey of the Council for Foreign Relations admits, “Obama has yet to settle on a ‘doctrine’ that characterises his overall approach to international relations.”

Future Forward
Slow motion train wreck or bridge under repair?

The repair imagery may be more accurate. Obama got the nuclear enrichment and reprocessing agreement through. His foreign policy today is less enamoured of China, less obsessed with an Afghan withdrawal and simply getting more attention in general.

There is no big bilateral idea on the horizon. But moving forward on several medium-sized themes is probably enough. US officials say Home Minister P. Chidambaram is emerging as their most constructive interlocutor, indicating that, Headley hiccups aside, counter-terror is a growth area. Markey says higher education has the potential to become “strategic” in size.

There is less clarity as to what India has in mind. Singh showed himself a master at the G-20. Otherwise, says Ganguly, India has shown an “appalling lack of ideas”. Coming up with something in areas like climate change and nuclear nonproliferation other than the standard rhetoric would help push back a rising image of India in Washington, says a lobbyist, as being all “hat and no cattle”.

“Let’s be clear,” says Markey. “Washington squabbles with lots of close partners. The fear is that the relationship hasn’t reached a level of maturity that would insulate it from these relatively minor issues.”

Putting in place these layers of depth is the goal both countries should be setting themselves.