The United States remains the essential country in India’s global power trajectory. Only the sole superpower could secure an exemption from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It remains the primary source of overseas capital and technology for India’s economy. Its array of military technologies are necessary for India’s post-26/11 security needs. And it’s the preferred land of deal-making for Indian private corporations and the favoured home for Indian immigrants. And because it takes democracy seriously, the US is one great power that does not perceive the rise of India as a strategic threat.
These are only some of the reasons why India’s most important bilateral relationship is unquestioningly the one it has with the United States. Pakistan is also important, but in an almost wholly negative sense. However, there is an inevitable mismatch. India is not the overriding concern of United States’s foreign policy and, during this time of economic crisis, foreign policy is not even the overriding concern of President Barack Obama. Which is why any expectation of path-breaking developments in the relationship during India’s first genuine engagement with President Obama should be quashed. But by hosting Prime
Minister Manmohan Singh and indicating his intention to reciprocate so early in his presidency, the US President seems to be trying to say: I want to do business but my hands are full, so bear with me.
Nonetheless, Washington needs to be conscious that the present bonhomie between India and the United States is only a few years old and is far from institutionalised. India continues to face major barriers in accessing dual-use technologies. The two countries struggle to coordinate their policies on Afghanistan-Pakistan and, as was recently shown, China. Mr Obama has many specific policy areas where he hopes to work closely with India, including climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and terrorism. Inevitably, there will be friction on such complex issues, which will and can be ignored if there seems to be a larger forward movement between the two countries. The Obama administration needs to outline a larger vision for the Indo-US relationship. Time has been too short for it to come out with a vision at this summit but hopefully one will emerge by the time of the next one. New Delhi should not be a passive player in all this: though its foreign policy bureaucracy will creak with the effort, it should start coming up with its own ideas regarding India’s most important relationship.