by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st Dec 09
Washington gazers have argued about whether the Prime Minister’s visit to the US was a success or a failure. Symbolism more than substance was the eventual consensus, with solace being extracted from President Obama’s reference to India as a nuclear power.
The disappointment that tinged this conclusion stems from a tendency to measure the success of visits in terms of big bang agreements. Phrases like “common ideals”, “shared values”, and “vibrant linkages” that filled the Obama-Manmohan joint declaration are considered useful preambles; but observers want the real stuff as well. However, this time round, with a “Global strategic partnership”; a “New framework for the U.S.- India defence relationship”; and the “US-India civil nuclear agreement”, already delivered, there wasn’t much left to sign.
The improbable speed with which Washington has warmed to New Delhi has created unrealistic expectations. In 1971, President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were describing Indians as “bastards” and “aggressive goddam people”; and referring to Indira Gandhi as an “old witch” and a “bitch” in turn. That said as much about Nixon and Kissinger as about US-India relations but, still, it was only a decade ago that India faced full-frontal sanctions from Washington after the nuclear tests of 1998. In less than a decade that relationship has flowered, yielding a defence framework agreement in 2005 and the civil nuclear agreement last year.
While India has benefited from this new partnership --- in nuclear power generation, for example, or in access to US intelligence a la David Headley --- New Delhi has hardly had to walk the talk. It retains an independent foreign policy, even on US bête noir, Iran; and despite the allegations of the political left, India concedes little to the US in defence policy and procurements.
Compare this with America’s longstanding relationships with UK and Australia, whom Washington counts amongst its closest allies. When the US goes to war --- as in Iraq and Afghanistan --- London and Canberra go along too. America’s NATO allies face the same pressures. Japan, closely linked since World War II by a mutual security treaty, plays reluctant host to tens of thousands of US soldiers. Israel remains a longstanding partner, even if somewhat diminished under Obama. Over time, all these countries have generated political, bureaucratic and military goodwill in Washington. Even the so-called Major Non-NATO Allies (MNNA), such as Pakistan and South Korea, with institutional linkages built over decades, command greater leverage amongst Washington’s political and bureaucratic class than India does.
Only in romantic relationships is the initial period the steamiest. Relationships between countries warm up more gradually as legislative frameworks are negotiated as the foundations for strategic partnerships. In the US-India relationship only the initial steps have been taken in this process. The defence partnership is no more than a framework, valid for ten years, with a formal agreement still in the future. With New Delhi playing negotiating hardball, it will take years to negotiate the agreements that are needed for real partnership. The End User Monitoring agreement, a political minefield for any Indian government, has been finalised painstakingly. Another political hot potato, a Logistic Support Agreement (LSA) remains to be hammered out; so does a Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). A formal defence pact can materialise only upon this foundation.
Only after that, for all its political impetus, will the US-India relationship begin to give India what it most urgently needs from the US: high technology. So far, the message has not flowed down from the top floors to the functional levels of the US State Department, the Pentagon and the Department of Commerce, which issue the licences needed for exporting sensitive technologies.
This is especially so with the inwardly focused Obama administration, which does not view India from the balance of power perspective of the Bush-Rice regime. India remains a fellow-democracy, something greatly cherished in the American psyche; and a lucrative market, something that America loves even better. But New Delhi remains marginal to Washington’s immediate foreign policy challenges.
The absence of high profile agreements between Obama and Manmohan could actually benefit India, allowing New Delhi the diplomatic space to reassure longstanding allies like Russia. Mere assurances that “the US-India relationship will not be at the cost of other countries” have cut little ice in Moscow. India can ill afford to jeopardise the strategic technology and assistance flowing in from Russia. But Defence Ministry officials have faced growing annoyance; their interlocutors in Moscow complain pithily, “We give you assistance that America will never consider. But, at the first opportunity, you jump into their laps.”
India remains free to pursue partnerships in its legitimate interest. But those must be harmonised with existing relationships and New Delhi has not yet expended the time and political and diplomatic effort needed for this. Realistically, therefore, the modest outcome of Dr Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington was not just predictable but has spared New Delhi some embarrassment in its relationship with other allies.