“What prompts Obama to bracket Manmohan Singh with Hassanal Bolkiah is not difficult to fathom – simply put, both are potential buyers of American products” says the author.
For a prime minister who got branded – unfairly, to my mind – as the most ‘pro- American’ in independent India, Manmohan Singh’s visit to the White House on Friday has an anti-climactic touch. There is near-total absence, on either side, of the sort of rhetoric that traditionally characterized such events. Meanwhile, next Monday also happens to be an important anniversary date. Five years ago the US Congress gave final approval on October 1, 2008 to the agreement facilitating nuclear cooperation between the US and India. Ironically, neither side is eager to celebrate the 5th anniversary. The nuclear deal was expected to bring India and the US together beneath the canopy of a strategic partnership based on an unprecedented convergence of interests. The leitmotif was the containment of China. The hyperbole raised very high expectations about a brave new world in which the US and India would fasten the “global commons”, exorcise terrorists, clean up environment and propagate democracy. But the unfulfilled expectations have come to haunt the relationship.
There has been criticism that the US-India relations are in a state of drift and New Delhi should take the blame. Indeed, the nuclear deal brought about a sea change in the mutual perceptions regarding the relationship. In tangible terms, India is able to access uranium supplies from abroad, which in turn enables it to divert the scarce domestic reserves for the nuclear weapon program. As for the US, the new climate of relationship enabled it to make an entry into the massive Indian market and arms deals so far struck by it already exceed $10 billion in value. On the other hand, the US gradually lost the enthusiasm it claimed to have possessed in 2008 for getting India inducted into the technology control regimes, especially the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Nor is Washington fulfilling its 2008 commitments on transfer of reprocessing technology. Indeed, no one talks anymore about India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. On the contrary, the US behaves like the aggrieved party, complaining that India got ‘more’ out of the nuclear deal, since the expected dozens of billions of dollars worth nuclear commerce that Delhi had pledged may remain a distant dream unless the Indian government ‘tweaked’ its nuclear liability legislation. The blame game has put the Indian elites under pressure to ‘perform’ – that is, to ‘compensate’ the American side by at least buying more weapons from the US so that Washington is somehow kept in good humor. It also works as pressure to open up the Indian economy to boost US exports.
The American side knows how to play the game, especially the present administration whose top agenda is the recovery of the US economy. Thus, President Barack Obama is hosting a lunch in honor of Manmohan Singh and the US officials claim this to be an exceptional honor being bestowed on our prime minister because he would only be the second visiting dignitary that the US president is hosting to a lunch – other than the Sultan of Brunei. What prompts Obama to bracket Manmohan Singh with Hassanal Bolkiah is not difficult to fathom – simply put, both are potential buyers of American products. However, if the fizz has disappeared from the 2008 nuclear deal, the real reasons for it are to be found somewhere else. On the one hand, the US is a diminished world power today and is rebalancing its global strategies. On the other hand, India is acutely aware of the shift in the global balance of power that is happening and is making own adjustments to meet emergent realities. Thus, even as Manmohan Singh arrives in Washington, an Indian team landed in Beijing to prepare for a historic visit by the prime minister to China in October. Again, the impending visit of Manmohan Singh to Washington did not deter Delhi from talking loudly about stepping up its oil imports from Iran.
Similarly, at the recent G20 summit in St Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin was pleasantly surprised at the forceful opposition to foreign military intervention in Syria by Manmohan Singh. The heart of the matter is that the euphoria of the nuclear deal was simply not sustainable. The latest revelations of the US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden come as a reality check. New Delhi covered up for the US so far by bravely defending the widespread snooping by American intelligence agencies as in the interests of preventing ‘terrorist attacks.’ The argument won’t wash anymore. The disclosures on Tuesday reveal that the NSA selected India’s Permanent Mission to the UN at New York and its embassy in Washington with great deliberation as “location targets” for infiltrating the hard disks of office computers and telephones with hi-tech bugs. Are we to believe that Indian diplomats posed threat to America’s homeland security? The disclosures say the Indian missions were specifically marked for various snooping techniques including one codenamed “Lifesaver,” which “facilitates imaging of the hard drive of computers.” It is fortuitous that Snowden’s disclosures have come on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the US-India nuclear deal. They serve to bring a sense of proportions to the India-US discourse. Hopefully, this will also be the end of the blame game that the US-India ties have lost their ‘sheen’ due to the Indian inertia. There never was any real sheen in the first instance – except in the rhetoric.