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Status quo on Indo-US ties

As Barack Obama completed one year as the United States President, the bilateral equation between India and America was marked by excellent atmospherics and, most significantly, a lavish State dinner hosted for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Washington in November.

world Updated: Jan 21, 2010 00:45 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya

As Barack Obama completed one year as the United States President, the bilateral equation between India and America was marked by excellent atmospherics and, most significantly, a lavish State dinner hosted for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his visit to Washington in November.

But even as compliments flowed between the sides just like fine wine during that dinner, analysts observing the evolution of the relationship over 12 months believe it can be summed up tersely by the phrase “status quo”.

No substantial new ground has been broken and while the summit could be considered a success in allaying some of the suspicions India may have harboured about the Obama regime, India hasn’t quite been part of America’s strategic equation as it was during the tenure of George W. Bush.

Lisa Curtis, a Senior Research Fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and former Senior Advisor to the State Department’s South Asia Bureau, said, “During Bush, there was a real urgency to get the India relationship right. There’s more of complacency now. The relationship appears to be coasting along.”

“It’s been more status quo,” said Sanjay Puri, Executive Director of USINPAC, the Washington-based lobbying group that works on issues of interest to the Indian American community. “Obama has been preoccupied with health care reform, the economy, the AfPak situation. India is still important but you can only pay attention to so many things at a given point of time,” Puri added.

But there are two areas where gains have been made — military-to-military ties and counter-terrorism. There has been nearly $3 billion worth of defence trade between the two countries over two years.

Another major gain has been the “unprecedented and extremely positive cooperation” on counter-terrorism, said Curtis, exemplified by the FBI coordinating with Indian intelligence with regard to the Mumbai terrorist attacks and the investigation into Chicago residents David Headley and Tahawwur Rana’s roles as conspirators, though it was marked by a hiccup when Indian sleuths weren’t provided access to them.

On the other hand, the Arrangements and Procedures Agreement relating to fuel reprocessing and one of the final stages in completing the India-US civilian nuclear deal has been beset by a menu of quibbles. But Obama has made clear his commitment to the deal.

Another area of cooperation was with regard to Copenhagen Accord on climate change which saw networking between the US, India and China.

But, contrary to the Bush Administration’s view, India isn’t at the center of US strategic thinking when it comes to the region. Obama’s visit to China a week before the summit with Singh underscored how America may well view Asia through a Chinese lens. And America’s interests in South Asia could well “revolve around Pakistan and its concerns,” Curtis said.