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India and America: Mind the gap

India unhappy over the turn taken by US immigration reform efforts, which seem hostile to India IT firms. Every visiting Indian minister, official or lawmaker has raised the issue during interactions with their American counterparts, including finance minister P Chidambaram.

delhi Updated: Jun 23, 2013 01:11 IST

As inputs poured in from various arms of the United States government, the state department’s draft of the joint statement grew to 11 pages — an impossible length for a document few will read or remember. US diplomats began trimming.

Talking to reporters, a senior Indian diplomat droned on about the ongoing cooperation between the two countries, until stopped by embarrassed subordinates.

“There is just too much going on,” said senior US diplomat Robert Blake, at a think tank discussion previewing the coming strategic dialogue starting on Sunday. “Which is a good thing,” he added.

But not all of what’s going on with the relationship has been good apparently. There have been disappointments and frustrations on both sides, and broken promises.

India is unhappy over the turn taken by US immigration reforms efforts, which seem intentionally hostile to Indian tech firms operating here such as Infosys, TCS and Wipro. Every visiting Indian minister, official or lawmaker has raised it at their respective interactions with their American counterparts, including finance minister P Chidambaram.

The US delegation is carrying its own set of grievances to be raised with the Indians -- intellectual property rights, preferential market access and market reforms. But it is telling that the fourth Indo-US strategic dialogue will largely be about economics.

Admittedly, trade and investments are central to India-US ties. Bilateral trade touched $100 billion in 2012 and has grown at the rate of 6% in the first four months of 2013.

US businesses remain the largest investors in India and Indian investments in the US are growing -- the most recent being Apollo Tyre’s acquisition of Cooper Tyre.

The current tensions over trade and economic issues have to some looked like capping a relationship, which is in a state of drift. In Washington and New Delhi, officials struggle to describe what is “strategic” about relations these days.

“There’s no longer a big idea driving it,” said Sadanand Dhume, an expert at a conservative think tank, adding, “US-India relations lack the sense of optimism and purpose that marked the 2008 civil nuclear agreement.”

President Barack Obama tried to recapture that high on his visit to India by supporting New Delhi’s claim to a permanent seat in the UN security council. It made headlines, as expected. But it did nothing to break new strategic ground. The search began for another “big idea” within weeks of Obama’s return.

For the Obama administration, the passage of India’s civil nuclear liability law, a law perceived to be biased against US reactors, was seen as evidence that Singh government was incapable of fulfilling its own promises. The less charitable in Washington said India had negotiated “in bad faith”.

When the multirole fighter aircraft contract went to France many in the US wonder if the relationship had been worth the nuclear deal. The inability of the second Singh government to pass any economic reforms enhanced the image of an incapacitated Prime Minister and an India returning to its pre-liberalisation navel-gazing ways.

Part of the reason for the US’s harsh line on trade is that much of the pro-India sentiment in the US Congress evaporated after the nuclear liability law was passed.

India had its own concerns. Obama’s initial flirtations with China under the G-2 policy raised questions about US’s credibility as a strategic partner.

But more damaging was Washington’s seeming determination to leave Afghanistan in a way that handed the country -- and India’s interests -- on a platter to Pakistan. The latest, surprise announcement of US talks with the Taliban, has only strengthened New Delhi’s sense that on Af-Pak, India and the US are becoming strategic adversaries. It will not help that Kerry is strongly associated with a Taliban appeasement line.

But do these disappointments and differences suggest relations are adrift? Or that they may have plateaued as has been suggested by some experts -- “stuck on a plateau”, wrote Harsh Pant of King’s College, London recently.

Listing recent bilateral visits, Karl Inderfurth, who heads the India chair at a think tank, said, “This level of interaction certainly does not add up to a relationship that is adrift.”

“It has become common place to say that the bilateral relationship has reached a plateau,” said Ashley Tellis, analyst at the Carnegie Endowment and former state department official who played a crucial role in the civil nuclear deal, in a primer on the strategic dialogue published on Thursday.
“But that may actually be a good thing if reaching a plateau means stability and predictability,” he added.

The two countries are bridging the gap on the nuclear issue, cutting the red tape on defence purchases, and coming to terms that while they agree on East Asia, they may go their own ways on Afghanistan.

First Published: Jun 22, 2013 23:28 IST