After entering a green light mode, India-US relations have slipped into an amber mode. How soon we can get back into smooth circulation will depend largely on the US, as the responsibility for the malaise affecting our ties rests mainly on its shoulders.
It is irrelevant whether the current US ambassador to India has resigned or has chosen retirement. The ambassador would have done two years by the time she leaves, not an abnormal tenure by any means. With a new government in New Delhi in the offing, a change in ambassadors would not be inopportune even in the normal course of things. That the present ambassador has contributed to driving the relationship into a corner despite a pro-US government in New Delhi makes the change even more advisable.
From our perspective, the present ambassador has outlived her utility.With regard to the State Department role in Khobragade’s arrest and the evacuation of the maid’s family, either the ambassador misjudged our reaction and therefore gave faulty advice, or she gave the right counsel but it was disregarded, which would suggest that her clout in Washington is limited. In either case her usefulness, in any serious attempt to put the relationship back on track, is questionable.
A more serious political misjudgment by the US, for which the ambassador cannot escape blame, is the failure to mend political fences with Narendra Modi in a timely manner following the European example. Worse for her credibility, the day she met Modi, the State Department declared that the visa policy towards him remained unchanged. The ambassador would have undoubtedly been consulted beforehand about how her overture to Modi would be “balanced” at the Washington end, which further underscores the inept political handling of the US relationship with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.
To lift the morose mood in India-US ties, the US has to decide whether its strategic interest in India has wider geopolitical objectives, or depends on the redressal of shortcomings in our current trade, investment and IPR polices that affect the interests of US corporations in select sectors. If US interest has flagged because the promised opening of the Indian market has not occurred and our growth rate has fallen, can one conclude that the US-India “strategic partnership” is largely a function of board room strategies of US corporations? If so, is the US hyping up its strategic partnership with India to essentially gain wider access to our expanding market?
Even if this strategic partnership is taken at face value, the US “system” makes it very difficult to deal with this kind of a relationship with America. Separate constituents of the Administration, the Congress, the intelligence agencies, NGOs, think-tanks, foundations, a variety of lobbies, can all play a constructive or a destructive role in conducting relations between the US and other countries.
Changing of the guards: The tensions over the arrest of diplomat Devyani Khobragade demonstrate the need for a change of staff. For the Pentagon, India seems to have geopolitical value, especially in the context of a rising China. Protecting the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean, through which global trade and energy flows, makes India a valuable strategic partner of the US, given the expanding power of the Indian Navy. With the Indo-Pacific concept gaining acceptance, maritime security has become a top drawer issue.
The State Department’s ambivalence towards India remains despite the forging of a strategic partnership. Secretary Kerry is supposedly less drawn towards India than his predecessor, which would make the political hand at the top of the State Department looser in directing Indiarelated policies. While the non-proliferation lobby in the State Department has been subdued by the India-US nuclear deal, the human rights, human trafficking, minority protection units seem to be propelled by their own logic vis-a-vis India independently of the logic of the overall relationship in which the stakeholders on the US side have interests that obviously transcend dedicated moral pursuits by human rights activists in the US foreign office.
The responsiveness of the US system to pressure by corporate lobbies can cause unexpected turbulence in pursuing an overall “strategic partnership” with the US, as demonstrated by the US Trade Representative’s threat to impose sanctions on India under US laws for alleged IPR violations, instead of getting the matter adjudicated through the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism.
Hesitant: The US state department under John Kerry appears ambivalent on strengthening ties with India Select US corporations in the pharmaceutical, telecom and solar energy are today leading the charge against India in the US Congress, even as the US corporate sector has been in the past, a potent ally of India in promoting bilateral economic ties. Now we hear that President Obama, focused primarily on domestic issues, is paying inadequate attention to India, even though in 2010 the US relationship with India was, in his eyes, a defining partnership of the 21st century.
Such a quick turnabout calls into question the depth of the India-US strategic partnership. Presumably this partnership was based on a wider US geopolitical objective of consolidating the global system established by the West post-1945 by co-opting a huge and rising Asian country like India through intensified engagement, so that the inevitable re-ordering of the balance of power within the system is done under the aegis of the US rather than in opposition to it.
This objective will be increasingly difficult to achieve if the US continues with its regime change policies, refuses to see the terrible societal costs of its democracy and human rights promotion policies, or curbs its tendency to unilaterally sanction countries whose policies it disagrees with, as we see even in the case of a nuclear-armed permanent UN Security Council member like Russia. What strategic lesson should weaker and more vulnerable countries draw from this?