The known unknowns about Modi are perfect catalysts for a reset of India-US relations
Over the past three years, Washington has also come to believe it did India too big a favor with the nuclear deal and received little payback. This premise conveniently ignores the many tangibles (Indian purchases of US defense platforms to the tune of $10 billion in less than a decade) and intangibles (India’s decision not to criticize wholesale spying by NSA). A strong government in New Delhi is unlikely to be as patient or as yielding
The American establishment is registering a measure of fear while the liberal academic-NGO community a sense of loathing at the prospect of Narendra Modi becoming India’s next PM. They are full of questions with no real answers. If elected, how would a state CM play the national and international game? How would he deal with a US administration whose policy lately has been to hit India on multiple fronts to extract concessions? More importantly, how would he look at a country that denied him a visa and had no contact with him for seven years?
The anti-Modi coalition of Christian evangelists, left-leaning Indian Americans and Muslim activists is gearing up to mount pressure through the US Congress. They will keep the heat on even though the old fervor is gone, especially among Republicans. The uncertainties, the ambiguities and the “known unknowns” about Modi are actually perfect catalysts for a “reset” of India-US relations currently running at a low. They can create the new chemistry necessary for a more balanced equation better suited to the times.
It cannot be the responsibility of one partner to create equilibrium, constantly ignore provocations and appease. A good relationship bears traffic in both directions. Actually the reset has already begun. Ironically, the button was pushed by the Khobragade affair. Needless provocation sparked a strong Indian response and washed the fuzziness off the relationship. Dialogue has gained in clarity since. The defensive tone has been replaced by a confident articulation of Indian expectations from the relationship. It is neither arrogant nor whiney. Terms of engagement will change further if Indian voters give a clear mandate.
Unfortunately, the last phase of the UPA government left the impression that India will reverse its policies in the face of pressure and noise from Washington. It did so on preferential market access and transfer pricing. This has emboldened US lobbies out to draw more blood. After all who wouldn’t use a tactic that works? Over the past three years, Washington has also come to believe it did India too big a favor with the nuclear deal and received little payback. This premise conveniently ignores the many tangibles (Indian purchases of US defense platforms to the tune of $10 billion in less than a decade) and intangibles (India’s decision not to criticize wholesale spying by NSA). A strong government in New Delhi is unlikely to be as patient or as yielding. Piling on public pressure is bad strategy for the general health of the relationship.
It reduces the Indo-US story to one of trade and investment disputes and blurs the original idea for coming together – a geostrategic convergence of interests. The new government will realize soon enough that an inward-looking Obama administration has had only fitful engagement with the world. That it has paid no special homage to strategic vision, and instead allowed a disaggregation of the India-US relationship. Then it has come after New Delhi issue by issue. It has attacked India at the behest of big pharma and other business interests whose maximalist agenda has been repeatedly exposed.
Their game is to scotch any serious attempt to keep medicine affordable while discrediting India’s generic drugs industry through means both fair and foul. In their calculation, if India bends, it would scare smaller, weaker countries from ever contemplating a compulsory license US pharma’s brutal overreach has even put the much-touted Trans-Pacific Partnership under a cloud as negotiating countries discover the traps set for them under the guise of protecting intellectual property and copyrights. If the US Trade Representative reviewing India’s intellectual property regime downgrades it and puts it on the list of ‘Special 301’ countries, this will add another twist to an already twisting relationship. Such naming and shaming could lead to sanctions.
Pushing the business agenda of demands drafted by the US Chamber of Commerce at a time when the US is losing international partners faster than it is acquiring them is unwise. Especially when Obama’s signature foreign policy effort – the pivot to Asia – keeps reincarnating in lesser and lesser avatars. Obama had also pledged to strengthen bonds with emerging economies but today all Brics are piled up against America for various reasons. India, Brazil, China and South Africa abstained on a UN resolution condemning the fifth partner Russia’s annexation of Crimea. India also abstained on a US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka’s human rights situation.
This reflects a post-Khobragade realism, a push-back, even a new equilibrium. India will give but also take. For every US demand to open the Indian economy, there would be an equal and opposite demand on completing a “tantalization agreement”. India may find it useful to cross-link and leverage defense contracts for something tangible. Surely $10 billion worth of arms can buy relief on H-1B visas or a more honest policy towards a certain neighbor that remains the hub of terrorism. The truth is if Washington can be transactional, so can others. But this new phase should not obscure the larger logic behind India and the US coming together because the many reasons for convergence remain. Those with a wider window than a four-year election cycle understand that. Equally importantly, those who make national security policy in India know what balance of power is more beneficial.