Not squaring up with Washington

With news about yet another possible scandal, this time dealing with oil leases, buffeting the United Progressive Alliance-2 government, it may be difficult for the country’s policymakers to focus on the upcoming US-India strategic dialogue scheduled for late next month. Indeed if the current disarray persists, the meeting scheduled in Washington, D.C. may lead, at best, to the usual recitation of a litany of mutual concerns.

At worst, the Indian side may not even be able to cobble together such a ritualistic incantation.
Similarly, the Obama administration frantically dealing with Republican intransigence on the healthcare legislation, and more importantly on the question of the budget ceiling, may also have had little time to fashion a meaningful agenda for the dialogue. That said, quite apart from its legion of domestic woes, given the responses that it has elicited from India in the recent past on various fronts, their inattention might be forgiven.
Aside from the exigencies that the relationship currently confronts, the dialogue may well be facing some structural problems that need to be forthrightly addressed. Bluntly stated, some key policymakers in the United States are beginning to express private doubts about whether or not India really wants to pursue a viable strategic partnership. These doubts have arisen because of a number of recent developments in both multilateral and bilateral contexts.
Many observers of the relationship are probably well aware of these infelicitous events and turning points. However, for the benefit of others it may be useful to highlight some of them. At least three of them should be underscored. The first, of course, was the decision of Parliament to pass such draconian nuclear liability legislation that it all but deterred most American firms from wanting to invest in the Indian civilian nuclear energy industry. Most, though not all, Indian analysts have been ready to dismiss the concerns of American firms and have suggested that similar, if not better technological investments can be obtained from other nations, notably France.
However, this analysis sorely misses the point. The George W. Bush and the Obama administrations both expended significant political capital to cajole and prod a reluctant Congress to pass the enabling legislation to consummate the civilian nuclear energy agreement. They also persuaded key recalcitrant members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group to allow the deal to proceed apace.
Having spent so much political and diplomatic capital it was entirely reasonable for the United States to expect that its companies might have a fair chance of competing in the Indian market. The legislation, in its present form, all but ensures that they will not be entering the fray anytime soon. At a time when the US economy still remains in the doldrums it is hardly unreasonable for American legislators to have expected a more welcoming attitude from India. Sadly, few influential individuals in the Indian political arena are either cognisant of their frustration, or, worse still, even care about these bruised sentiments.
This lack of reciprocity was bad enough. However, India’s decision to abstain at the United Nations Security Council on the vote authorising the use of force against Libya caused further heartburn. In fact, it again resurrected memories of a time when India could be fairly well counted upon to vote against the United States. Such votes, mostly cast during the Cold War years, had the effect of dramatically alienating US legislators. For good or ill, in that era, the resultant diplomatic damage mattered little to India because the bilateral relationship had so little of substance. Today, however, India’s policymakers cannot afford to be so cavalier about the consequences. When votes concerning India crop up in the House and the Senate they should not expect much sympathy, let alone support.
Finally, there is the still simmering resentment over India’s decision to overlook the two American contenders for the Medium Multiple Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). It is entirely possible, and indeed quite likely, that the decision was made purely on technical grounds. To that extent, the expectations of the process that the defence ministry had outlined were honoured. However, in a country where political considerations all too frequently influence critical public policy choices the abrupt decision to sedulously adhere to technical criteria does appear a bit odd. Technical specifications alone, for once, should not have been the critical basis for selecting this aircraft. Instead a decision in favour of the American aerospace firms could have served as a useful strategic signal to the United States that India was willing to put the relationship on a wholly new level.
Indian commentators and policymakers have been quick to assert that the US has been the beneficiary of other significant defence contracts. That argument, however, misses the point. The symbolic significance of this potential contract was not lost on anyone. It was a deal of dramatic proportions and one that will have considerable ramifications for the future of India’s defence procurement policies.
Against this backdrop of a series of disappointments Indian policymakers continue to express frustration with the United States on a range of issues extending from greater access to H-1B visas to a lack of American pressure on Pakistan to rein in its continuing support for terror in Kashmir and elsewhere. These complaints, many of which are quite legitimate, are unlikely to gain a sympathetic hearing in Washington, D.C. anytime soon. The obvious lack of reciprocity that India has demonstrated in the recent past has made it difficult even for those who are sympathetically inclined to make a case on its behalf. Obviously, those who have long harboured an animus towards the country have simply found more reasons to bolster their existing prejudices.
The domestic distractions that policymakers from both countries face at home are real and compelling. However, unless India’s delegates to the next round of the strategic dialogue can proffer some imaginative and concrete suggestions for placing this partnership on a more secure footing the reasons for continuing the partnership may prove to be mostly chimerical.

Sumit Ganguly is director of research at the Centre on American and Global Security at Indiana University, Bloomington

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