US President Barack Obama’s India policy, or the lack of it, came under withering attack at a Senate hearing on Wednesday in the run up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's upcoming visit to Washington.
Powerful Republican Senator John McCain, who recently met Modi and his senior cabinet colleagues in New Delhi, led the charge asking for the administration's strategy.
At his meeting with Modi, Senator McCain said, the Prime Minister told him he wanted to focus “our partnership” on an “ambitious strategic agenda”.
“Would you tend to agree with that,” he asked assistant secretary of state Nisha Biswal, who was also in India recently, the main administration official at the hearing.
Biswal said that was the impression she got at the meeting she attended between Modi and the US deputy secretary of state William Burns.
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“What does the administration think the elements of that agenda might be,” the Senator asked her.
“We think that we have a very strong opportunity in terms of security cooperation and defence partnership …,” Biswal offered only to be cut off by McCain.
“What, specifically, would that be?” he asked.
Biswal said Modi told them “defence manufacturing was a key area that India would like to pursue”. She went on to speak about India raising the FDI cap in defence.
The Senator cut in again, but showing no sign of irritation or impatience at not getting the answer he was seeking: “Not exactly sure that that is a strategic agenda.”
Biswal, who is directly in charge of relations with India as head of the South Asia and Central Asia desk at state department, launched into a litany of ongoing engagements.
“Greater cooperation in defence partnership, in the security partnership … strategic objectives in region — East Asia, maritime security … South and Central Asia …”
“We certainly look to increase our relationship with respect to how to work together to address problems in the region and across the world …” she added.
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McCain paused for a bit after Biswal was through.
“Strategic agenda,” he resumed, “what is our overall strategy?”
The same question was now posed differently.
Biswal tried again. “Senator as you noted … we think that as India grows, as India prospers and as India increases its capabilities … that India as a partner in the region …”
McCain cut in yet again.
“No … go ahead but you still haven’t (got on to) the strategy.”
He now gave up: “Strategy, as I understand it, is specific measures to ensure certain aspects of security,” he said again, patiently, without showing any signs of his famous temper.
“You haven’t mentioned China, you haven’t mentioned Japan. You haven’t mentioned … (the) strategy and the threats we (it wasn’t clear here if he meant “we” as in the US or “we” as India and the US) are facing and the challenges we are facing.”
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Unconvinced by Biswal’s follow-up, the Senator said, “I look forward to the articulation of that strategy.”
And he moved on to the next witness, and a new subject.
Former US ambassador to India, Frank Wisner picked up from where McCain left off, when he took his seat as part of the non-government panel following Biswal’s.
“Since 2010 (President Obama’s India trip), the relationship has been on hold,” said the former ambassador, who is now a general-purpose India-hand in this town.
“If anything,” he added, “it has atrophied.”
It is a serious charge from a diplomat trusted by this administration enough to be sent to convince Hosni Mubarak to step down.
Both McCain and Wisner were making the same point: the India-US relationship had run out of steam, ideas and handed over to bureaucrats to quibble over small things.
Richard Rossow, newly appointed head of the India chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a DC think-tank, added another dimension to the stalled relationship.
Since the exit of deputy defence secretary Ash Carter, he said there was no one at the cabinet level looking after the relationship with India on a daily basis.
Others have argued that the lack of leadership on relations with India goes back further — the White House lost interest soon after US companies lost the MMRCA deal.