US first lady, Michelle Obama, showing her dance moves at Mumbai. I don't know if she practiced before coming to India, but she picked up the steps with remarkable speed.
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Nov 10
Sceptics of the US-India engagement, who had contemplated President Obama’s recent state visit to India with noisy lip smacking in the gleeful anticipation of failure, have been left bemused by the outcome. On the one hand, there was friction and public jostling, including American-style homilies on free trade and the duty to foster democracy in Myanmar; and Indian-style obstinacy on the nuclear liability bill. On the other hand, Obama greatly pleased India by linking Pakistan with terrorism, and by backing an Indian permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Welcome to elephant mating, the coming together of fractious democracies. The grass gets trampled, but there are tangible, positive outcomes. A polarised Indian intelligentsia, and a trivialising media, which have made an easy living from milking positional divergences to predict doom for the US-India relationship, must learn to abandon such simplistic linkages. Trampled grass could also indicate a great communion.
The ardour and pace of the US-India courtship has been apparently masked by the friction that has accompanied it. Compare the relationship of a decade ago --- the blink of an eye in strategic time --- with where we are today. In 1999, reacting to India’s nuclear weapon tests, Republican senator Jesse Helms, the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared that “The Indian government has not shot itself in the foot. Most likely it has shot itself in the head.” That Quixotic statement was positively respectful compared to America’s Cold War view of India. On 5th Nov 1971, as India readied for war with Pakistan, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, heartily agreed that Indians were “a slippery treacherous people” and “the most aggressive goddam people around”. Kissinger referred to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as “a bitch”; Nixon termed her “an old witch”.
All that ice is turning rapidly into steam. From Jaswant Singh’s dialogue with Strobe Talbott, through the Clinton and Bush visits, the 18th July 2005 declaration; the defence pact of that same year, the nuclear deal of 2008, and now Obama’s cool-but-enthusiastic embrace of India, US-India relations have hurtled along dizzyingly. But India’s strateratti has been so fixated on the inevitable differences, while Washington and New Delhi try to harmonise issues like (a) commercial and trade relations; (b) civil nuclear commerce; (c) intelligence sharing and homeland security; (d) defence trade and partnership; and (e) technology sharing; that analysts have overlooked the convergence on the really big issues: counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, a rising China, India’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and East Asia, and --- in private discussions --- even on the future of Pakistan.
The US-India relationship will continue to be misread until India recognises that relations with a democratic superpower --- tossed about by the expectations of two separate electorates --- will be inevitably more complex than the stolid handshake of the Soviet Union, or the posturing and sloganeering of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
India’s expectations from the American partnership remain coloured by the India-Soviet Union experience, where superpower partnership was essentially a free ride. During the Cold War, India had only to provide the Soviet Union with the badge of political support from a third world leader, to reap rich dividends of development, technological and military aid. This was often politically embarrassing, especially when the Soviet Union indulged its proclivity for invading neighbouring countries, but New Delhi held its nose and shut its eyes and was repaid by unwavering Soviet support at crucial periods, such as the 1971 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, Article IX of which invoked Soviet intervention if a foreign power --- China or the US were key concerns then --- intervened militarily during India’s liberation of Bangladesh.
Today, with India’s foreign policy based on simultaneous, and synergistic, engagement with every global power centre --- call it multi-alignment --- New Delhi’s careful engagement of Washington is radically different from its old, no-questions-asked support to Moscow. Not even the staunchest enthusiast of US-India partnership advocates that New Delhi hitches its wagon --- poodle style --- to Washington, backing its foreign policy follies and participating in its military adventures. But Indian expectations are asymmetric: many Indians expect that New Delhi can legitimately choose where it will support Washington, but the US must support India everywhere.
While this is clearly unrealistic, America’s image in this country is challenged by the fact that Washington’s imperatives in AfPak --- an emotive symbol in much of India and, especially in policy and media circles --- are damaging to Indian interests. Diplomats contrast this with the Soviet Union, recalling its hands-off policy towards South Asia, and correctly pointing out that Moscow never imposed political costs on India by its actions in our region. But the world has changed, our backyard is a key battleground against terrorism, and so pragmatism, not petulance, will bring Washington around.
Given Pakistan’s control over land routes into Afghanistan, there is a practical logic behind Washington’s tolerance for Islamabad, even knowing that it is being backstabbed. That contradiction between America’s imperatives in Afghanistan and its frustration at Islamabad’s double-dealing will work to India’s advantage after a US military pullout. But India has its own contradictions: New Delhi wants US troops to remain in Afghanistan, knowing well the dependence this creates on Pakistan.
These complexities make AfPak the most challenging of diplomatic tightropes for Washington and New Delhi. That Obama publicly linked Pakistan with terrorism may have gratified his hosts, but that statement says less about any willingness to block India-directed terror, than it does about Washington’s intense desire to place the India relationship on a firmer footing. Post-Obama, the partnership is in cruise mode, being carried along by the sheer breadth of the engagement, especially the people-to-people dynamic. All that can derail this momentum is another major blunder like Obama’s ill-considered G-2 offer to China, essentially offering it the role of assistant superpower, which would presumably lord it over India. But Obama, it seems, is learning on the job.