WASHINGTON, DC: US may be losing patience with India though, some feel.
Secretary of State John Kerry, the hardest working man on the planet these days, took a couple of days off last week from trying to coax the Israelis and Hamas to end the Gaza conflict and racking his brains over Ukraine, Syria and numerous other global crises, to attend the annual India-US Strategic Dialogue in New Delhi.
The fifth edition of the dialogue was the first high-level meeting between the two sides since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May, and, as in the previous ones, they discussed bilateral cooperation in a whole gamut of areas. A 1,604-word joint statement issued at the end of the dialogue said it addressed, among other issues, trade, foreign investment, and cooperation in areas such as terrorism, defense, energy and Afghanistan.
During the trip, Kerry and Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker became the highest ranking US officials to meet Modi.
Given the fact that the new Indian government has been in office for less than three months and still in a “taking-stock period,” it is reasonable to assume that much of the energy was spent on laying ground work for Modi’s visit to Washington later this year, even though the joint statement mentioned it only once.
“[The two sides] expressed confidence that the Summit Meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama in Washington D.C. in September 2014 would generate new dynamism in the relationship,” the statement said.
It is not a secret, either in New Delhi or in Washington, that the bilateral ties have been adrift for some time now. The fact that the joint statement acknowledged that a “new dynamism” is needed is a good first step.
After cultivating and sustaining excellent ties for more than a decade, the two sides began drifting apart in the last couple of years of the Manmohan Singh government. The United States has been particularly incensed over trade barriers that US businesses are facing in India—an issue that Kerry raised again in Delhi last week—and New Delhi’s continued failure to provide adequate intellectual property rights.
India, on the other hand, was furious over the difficulties its companies are facing in the United States over as a result of US efforts to tighten the H-1B visa regulations. The arrest and eventual deportation of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobgragade in New York over visa fraud had threatened to derail the relations altogether.
The two sides are also at loggerheads in the global arena on a number of issues. Just last week, India’s opposition had killed a trade deal at the World Trade Organization.
In Washington, many foreign policy analysts and business leaders blamed the Singh government, enmeshed in scandal after scandal, pressured by coalition allies to move to a different direction and gripped by a policy paralysis, for the deterioration in ties. Once the government was voted out—which was a foregone conclusion for months—replaced by a more business friendly government, the relations will be back on track, their thinking went.
The fact that Washington has been preoccupied with a number of crises, including Syria, Ukraine and Gaza, in the past year and a half didn’t help either. With the administration stretched thin, the relationship with India was simply not receiving enough of its mind share. Another impediment was the notion that the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government was on its way out, which did not give enough incentives to US officials and the businesses to engage it exhaustively.
That’s why there was a lot cheerleading in Washington, especially among the business community, when the National Democratic Alliance government came to power in May with a clear majority.
But since moving to 7, Race Course Road, Modi, who has a track record as a man of action, has been at his deliberative best. As in a number of other areas, the prime minister seems to be channeling his inner Narasimha Rao and is moving cautiously on the relationship with the United States.
One hopes the lack of action on the bilateral relations front is in keeping with this – and not a concession to the constituency that is clamoring for India to go back to the days of Non-Aligned Movement.
But already some here are losing patience.
In an acerbic column on The Daily Beast Tunku Varadarajan, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution characterized the current state of relations as beyond redemption.
“[As] things stand, America gets neither strategic comfort nor a fair economic opportunity from India,” the former Times of London and Wall Street Journal journalist wrote. “Perhaps it’s time for Washington to shrug its shoulders and move on, leaving a warmer relationship with India to a time when Indians have made up their muddled minds about the kind of country theirs is—or ought to be.”
As harsh as it may sound, it is a view shared by a few in the United States.
But the good news is both nations get a chance to reboot the ties when Prime Minister Modi visits Washington next month.
Secretary Kerry understands this, more than anybody else. Prior to his departure for New Delhi, he hinted at the significance of the moment.
“This is a potentially transformative moment in our partnership with India and we’re determined to deliver on the strategic and historic opportunities that we can create together,” Kerry said at an event at the Center for American Progress.
Let us hope that both the governments will seize the moment. In the past two decades, the two have invested way too much in the relationship for them to continue to let it drift.