At the beginning of 2013, even the most pessimistic analysts in New Delhi and Washington would not have predicted the depth to which the US-India relations have sunk now. The sorry state of ties at the moment reminds one of 1998, when the United States imposed sanctions against India, after New Delhi conducted nuclear tests defying the international nuclear regime.
Unlike the nuclear test, which was a weighty policy decision made after a very careful consideration, the current impasse, which began with the arrest, on December 12, of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York for visa fraud, could have been completely avoided. Had the two sides communicated better on the issue, it could have been nipped in the bud.
There is no doubt the arrest will likely mar everyone’s view of how relations went for the entirety of 2013. Perhaps, justifiably so. While the incident can be safely termed as the lowest point in bilateral relations in more than a decade, it was not the only time the two countries disagreed this year.
The bilateral relations regressed to the point of a stalemate over the course of 2013 in a few other issues as well.
The comprehensive immigration reform bill that the US Senate passed last summer contains several provisions that, in the eyes of Indian IT companies, harm India in the long run. Although it increases the H-1B visa quota, the restrictions placed on firms that heavily depend on these specialized non-immigrant visas drew sharp response from India, which has historically sent more people on that visa category than any other country.
Every major Indian political and diplomatic dignitary that visited Washington this year conveyed India’s displeasure on the issue. Indian leaders have also repeatedly pointed out that the IT industry has played defining role in strengthening the US-India relationship.
The only reason the issue did not snowball further was the bill, which made its way swiftly through the Senate, hit a brick wall in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. Media reports indicate that if immigration reform doesn’t hit the floor of the House for a vote before the first quarter of 2014 comes to an end, it may not ever see the light of day.
Intellectual property rights regime in India another issue there was daylight between the positions of the two nations. Throughout the year, US manufacturers and the pharmaceutical industry, has lobbied members of Congress to put pressure on India to remove discriminatory trade barriers by New Delhi.
The US refusal to reverse its position on granting visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was another irritant in the relations. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader was denied a US visa in 2005 because of alleged role in the riots Gujarat three years earlier.
With BJP naming Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, the visa issue took on new dimension. However, the United States restated earlier this year that there is no change in its position on Modi, which disappointed the chief minister’s highly vocal supporters in this country.
If Modi does win the upcoming 2014 election in India, it puts US-India relations in a pickle, even though the Obama administration has already said that they are willing to work with the BJP leader.
Can the US and India work together if Modi is running the show in India? They’ll have to find a way, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that relations will almost certainly cool to some degree if he becomes the prime minister.
Despite the many differences, this year also saw some major strides in a number of areas. The bilateral commercial and trade relations
continued to grow impressively this year. By end of October, the two-way trade in goods had reached more than $54 billion, a 3.4 growth over the first four months of last year.
Similarly, progress has been made in the realm of education, with initiatives launching in both India and the US to introduce a community college system that will help train the rapidly growing youth population of India for technical jobs.
A September visit to Washington by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in all likelihood his last as India’s leader, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s first trip to Delhi for the annual strategic dialogue were the two headlining bilateral visits of the year.
To sum it up, the growing partnership between the United States and India will continue to gather steam as it moves ahead. But in the short run the two countries have to work on mending fences and diffuse tensions over Khobragade’s arrest.
Fortunately, the 1998 crisis also provides the road map on how relations can be put back on track. To the credit of the two nations, after India’s nuclear tests, both went to the negotiation table fairly quickly. The result was an unprecedented bonhomie that has lasted until now. Within a decade they would sign a truly historic civil nuclear deal and cooperate on a whole gamut of areas.
One hopes the current impasse pave way for a similar, unprecedented era in US-India relations.