The first high-level visit of a US official — Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal — to India last week after the Devyani Khobragade episode restored a degree of diplomatic normalcy in the ‘strategic partnership’. However, the distance between the two sides, on the bilateral front as well as regional issues, continues to persist.
On her first visit to India after her appointment, Biswal is understood to be pleased at the reception she got in South Block, meeting foreign secretary Sujatha Singh as well as a range of joint-secretaries.
But the gaps, according to diplomatic sources, were obvious.
On the region, the US-India gulf has been most visible on Bangladesh. India supported the January elections, which was pushed forward by the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League, and boycotted by the Begum Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is in alliance with the banned Jamaat-e-Islami. Delhi sees it as a battle of secular moderates and Islamists, and feels appeasing the latter would be counter-productive.
Washington had strongly argued that the polls lacked legitimacy. The US camp says that they share India’s concerns about the Jamaat, but pushing the BNP-Jamaat out of the mainstream political process is no solution. In Dhaka, the general perception is of the two countries batting for the two opposing ladies, which both sides agree is not very helpful. Washington sees an opening provided by local body elections to create a more inclusive polity.
On Sri Lanka, there is an overlap in analysis. Both Delhi and Washington agree that Colombo has not done enough to reach out to Tamils, that this may well lay grounds for further radicalisation, and the consolidation of one-family rule is a danger to democracy.
But while the US has aggressively argued for holding the Rajpakse regime accountable for war crimes, Delhi is in a bind because of different compulsions.
While demands from Tamil Nadu push Delhi to take a strong line, it worries the security establishment that China is filling in the vacuum and they are losing the little leverage they have. With an upcoming vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, US would like India to vote against Sri Lanka, while Delhi is yet to make up its mind.
At the root of the differences, however, is the trust deficit on the bilateral relationship. India strongly feels that the White House has been both inconsistent and indifferent to Delhi’s interests, while US feels it has not got the returns it expected after the nuclear deal and there is no big new idea.
PM Manmohan Singh invested enormously in the relationship in his first term, but as he completes his tenure, it is up to his successor and President Obama to find the right balance once again, especially on regional issues.