It is easy to treat the just-concluded round of ministerial-level strategic dialogue between India and the United States as yet another talking shop. After all, the two have close to 20 dialogues going on. But the broadness of its agenda, and the personal interest President Barack Obama has evinced in its progress, indicate that bilateral ties may experience two key shifts. First, the White House recapturing the India policy from the mid-level bureaucracy who have tied forward movement in legalese and inaction. Second, the two capitals are beginning to piece together a big strategic picture.
Right now, the relationship is being defined by squabbling over minor and tangential issues. If these shifts manifest themselves between now and Mr Obama’s expected India visit, they will do much to arrest the sense of drift afflicting relations. Sceptics have argued that Mr Obama didn’t have a central place for India in his worldview. His main security concern requires a wary embrace with Pakistan. His main economic migraine means dialogue with China. Washington is now less overwhelmed with these countries. There is evidence the White House recognises that from nuclear to defence ties, agriculture to education relations, things have become bogged down at the file-pushing level. Political direction is now called for.
New Delhi’s unwillingness to publicise the odd accomplishment, for example the new counterterrorism cooperation agreements, has helped feed a belief that nothing much is going on with the relationship. Even if the churn begins again, Indo-US relations will not fly at the tropospheric level of the civil nuclear agreement. After a diplomatic breakthrough, what is needed is the conversion of soaring language into tangible actions. And that is often more difficult. Both Mr Obama and Manmohan Singh need to personally sweat the small stuff. The US president’s intervention in the David Headley case is an example. Similar efforts will be needed to widen India’s dual-use technology access. Mr Singh needs to avoid the sort of legislative fumbling that derailed the civil nuclear liability bill. The relationship, as both sides have stressed at the dialogue, is essential to the strategic futures of both countries. But it is not yet a machine that will move on its own steam.