President Barack Obama’s second-term Secretary of State, John Kerry, is visiting India right now. In a speech at the India Habitat centre, New Delhi, Kerry touched upon several factors in the relationship between the two countries that have given substance to their strategic partnership, including defence, counter-terrorism, and high-tech and civil nuclear cooperation. The Secretary of State reiterated the high value the United States places upon its close ties to India, and even had a short video message for the Indian people via YouTube before his arrival in South Asia. However, the United States’ recent positioning on talks with the Taliban, as well as Kerry’s tone on Pakistan and his chiding on climate change and the Delhi rape victim ruffled many feathers in Delhi.
There has been much speculation in India whether Obama’s new man in the State Department is pro-Pakistan, if his trip is merely intended to renew the status quo until an era of bolder politicians, or if he actually intends to achieve anything. These are all legitimate concerns, albeit tainted by the euphoric high of the Indo-US nuclear deal during the George W Bush administration. In comparison, the US delegation’s visit this time promises more icing and less cake – both sides expect to seal large arms deals and wheels have been set in motion for India’s nuclear establishment study’s Westinghouse’s proposal to build up to six AP1000 reactors in Mithi Virdi, Gujarat, but discussion on more substantial issues is not likely to see much movement.
To be fair, these deals are not all chaff – not every meeting between states alters the shape of history or sets a ground-breaking precedent as the nuclear deal did. Firm and stable relationships are formed over time through ties between people, business, and government; it would simply be unrealistic to expect any US – or for that matter, Indian – official to wave a magic wand and propel Indo-US ties through to the next level. Nonetheless, India’s relations with the United States are likely to be cooler than either side would like in the near future until the fundamentals are addressed.
One of India’s fundamental concerns lies to its west – Pakistan. US plans to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014 has Delhi concerned, and the recent near-talks between the United States and the Taliban has made India furious. From Delhi’s perspective, American abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban bears an eerie parallel to 1989 when Washington did just that. In a strongly worded statement (by Indian standards), India’s external affairs ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said that India remained committed to the government and people of Afghanistan.
Though India has come around to the US view more than many in South Block would like by altering its stand that the international community cannot make distinctions within the Taliban as good and bad, Delhi emphatically stated that the reconciliation process should not be taken to confer equivalence between the terrorist groups and Kabul. Rumours that the Obama administration might not even insist on the Taliban abandoning al Qa’ida or that the Pakistani intelligence backed Haqqani network may be a participant in the talks has disturbed Delhi too.
India has also remained fairly quiet, perhaps due to its own impotence in the matter, over US inaction over China’s nuclear relations with Pakistan and continued US military aid to the South Asian terror hub. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been caught red-handed hiding Osama bin Laden and other wanted top operatives of terrorist groups. The Inter Services Intelligence has nurtured terrorist bases against India and against Pakistan’s enemies in Afghanistan; behind the cover of its nuclear shield, the ISI continues to orchestrate terror plots against India and western interests in India. In return, Washington has quietly removed many certification requirements that placed conditions on US assistance to Islamabad, much to the chagrin of South Block.
It is unlikely that Foggy Bottom disagrees with Delhi on the Af-Pak question. However, as Washington sees it, India has enjoyed pecuniary benefits from the twelve-year-long conflict waging near its north-western border. Despite the US repeatedly urging India to take up a more active role in its own backyard, the South Asian giant has remained on the sidelines; it has steadfastly refused to put boots on the ground, even training Afghan forces on Indian soil.
Despite its military reticence, India is the fifth-largest investor in Afghanistan, spreading development aid primarily around infrastructure, food, and government administration. The lack of a bigger footprint in the mountainous central Asian country has also given India a smaller voice in the peace negotiations.
There are other unresolved matters between India and the United States – Iran, China, and economic reforms. Yet none of these are critical to the interests of either India or the United States. India continues to trade with Iran but the US/EU sanctions ensure that the volume of trade is small enough not to cause any concern. On China, India’s stubborn persistence in maintaining its old shibboleth about non-alignment hurts India more than it does the US; it is true that the South Asian state would be an invaluable partner in a US rebalance, but Washington can make do without Delhi. Finally, on economic reform, Indians are agreed that they must take place; the problem is the pace with which reforms are proceeding and the criminal welfarism and endemic corruption.
Kerry’s visit has been tagged as low-key and the Indian media did not even give it the usual coverage reserved for high-level visits from strategic partners; this is, however, largely the fault of India’s strategic indecisiveness. For Indo-US relations to move forward substantially, substantial problems have to be resolved. Bush took steps to mitigate the effects of one problem, the nuclear apartheid India faced for the last 40 years; the next big question is Pakistan and Islamic terrorism. If Washington is serious about better ties with India, it cannot turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s umpteen transgressions against America’s strategic partners.
India must do its part too. On the other issues, the ball is in India’s court. Delhi needs to stop running with the G-77 and hunting with the G-20; it needs to formulate more active policies and contribute to the global commons. Yet all these issues are negotiable – while India’s greater participation would be welcome, it is not critical; Delhi’s narcoleptic routine hurts India more than anyone else. However, on Pakistan, India has no room to negotiate.