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The past warmth is missing

india Updated: Sep 29, 2013 23:56 IST
Barack Obama

The contrast between the lavish state banquet that United States President Barack Obama held for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during their first summit and the brief, working lunch of what is likely to be their last official get together could not be greater. In the first meeting, both saw the Indo-US relationship as something that could be at the heart of a different, post-Cold War, world order. Instead, India and the US are struggling to find a grand theme to their relationship. Mr Singh is seen in Washington as the prime minister who couldn't deliver on his promises. Mr Obama is seen in New Delhi as obsessed with short-term transactions. Both views are correct. The Indo-US relationship has foundered. Where once there was talk of a long-term relationship today there is squabbling over micro-issues. Mr Singh has a vision about the two countries, but scandals and his lack of political skills have lost him the authority to convert his ideas into tangibles. Mr Obama, focussed on the US’ many domestic ills, measures his foreign policy by what it delivers to American hearths and homes. The combination of the two leaders' failings has proven damaging to the relationship.

After the political breakthrough of the Indo-US nuclear deal, both governments needed to work hard on bringing their respective bureaucracies and institutional frameworks in line. This required a steady but strong political push from the top on both sides. This did not happen. Mr Obama’s wooing of China and his attempts to use Pakistan to minimise the fallout of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan stirred up older Indian scepticism about the US. New Delhi’s blunders, like the civil nuclear liability Bill, and failures in economic reform legislation gave ammunition to those in Washington who argued India was a third world country pretending to be otherwise.

Historians will be kind to Mr Singh — the strategic ramifications of the Indo-US nuclear deal were path-breaking. But building bridges, even repairing the damage of the past five years, will now be a key foreign policy task for his successor. It can only be hoped Mr Obama will give a little more thought to foreign policy in his last few years. If there is one thing these two countries have learnt in the past few years is that, despite differences, they fundamentally share a common worldview. Neither sees the other as a strategic threat. This is a relationship that will evolve in fits and bounds, more or less as one would expect from the world’s two largest democracies.