A dangerous myopia
The standard study of bilateral relations between India and the United States labelled them as ‘estranged democracies’” The good news is that the two countries have moved far beyond that description. Today, relations are marked by a degree of common purpose and regular interaction at numerous policy levels that would have been unthinkable a decade ago — evidenced by the present four-day visit of US Vice-President Joe Biden. The bad news is that this does not mean New Delhi and Washington see the world completely alike. A number of sources of friction now bedevil the relations. At a certain level this is only normal when two large, independent-minded countries work together on dozens of different topics. But, in the present circumstance, it tells something about the attitude of those in power in both countries.
The most obvious geopolitical difference between the two countries is a growing divergence on handling the fallout of the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan. India would prefer the US to lead the world in backing the Kabul government to fight off the Taliban insurgency. The Obama administration has preferred to buy the line peddled by Pakistan and is armtwisting Afghan President Hamid Karzai into seeking a political settlement with the Taliban. Such big picture issues are important. They generate the political pressures from above to ensure a relationship does not get bogged down in bureaucratic minutiae and micro-disputes. It says something about how things have changed that despite open differences on Pakistan, the Indo-US relationship continues to sail on smoothly. It is noticeable that India and the US remain on the same page almost everywhere else in the world, especially in East and Southeast Asia.
Where the relationship has started to fray is on the economic side. India has lost much of the goodwill it once had in the US Congress as a consequence. This means Indo-US ties are now much more transactional than in the past. Both sides are also increasingly short-sighted in their policies. India passed a foolish civil nuclear liability law. Washington, on the other hand, may soon pass restrictions on Indian software service firms that would cripple an industry that iconically represents the entire bilateral relationship. Getting the White House and Racecourse Road to take a more personal interest in preserving the relationship from this sort of myopia is now the greatest challenge facing the two countries.