On his first official trip to India in early November, Barack Obama will bring the largest business delegation ever to accompany an American president. Deals worth $10 billion-$12 billion are likely to be signed during the visit, with the likes of Caterpillar, Harley-Davidson and General Electric looking to supply equipment to Indian companies. Meanwhile, U.S. corporations such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin are eyeing India, one of the world’s largest arms importers, as it embarks on a five-year, $30 billion upgrade of its Soviet-era armoury. But before getting down to business, India Inc. has several concerns it wants addressed: U.S. protectionism (curbs on imports), visa issues such as the hike in H-1B fees, and Obama’s support for legislation that would curb outsourcing. For better business ties, both countries need to reach some agreement on these and other political issues such as defence and nuclear technology, as well as U.S. support for India’s demand for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA arrives in New Delhi early November for a visit certain to be replete with the “Kodak moments” that typify such presidential processionals. This will be his sixth encounter with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in various forums in the past 18 months, but his first in New Delhi, and he will be greeted with the effusiveness that has become customary of late between the Indian government and Washington. Obama will address a joint sitting of both houses of the Indian Parliament (convened unusually early for its “winter session” in order to make his appearance possible) and will enjoy a state dinner as well as several substantive meetings. It is difficult to imagine Singh repeating his famous declaration at the White House, a couple of years ago, to Obama’s predecessor that “the people of India deeply love you, President Bush”. But short of that, all the omens are propitious for a successful visit that will be strong on atmospherics. The question is, however, what deeper significance will it have? How will the Obama visit advance the Indo-U.S. relationship, the improvement of which may well have been the Bush administration’s most significant international achievement?

India is the only country in the world, other than Israel, where the U.S. rides high in public approval ratings. For decades during the Cold War, the world’s oldest democracy and its largest were essentially estranged. The U.S. preference for making anti-communist allies, however unsavoury, had tied Washington to a series of increasingly Islamist dictatorships in Pakistan, while the nonaligned democracy had drifted toward the secular Soviet embrace. With the end of the Cold War and India’s increasing integration into the global economy, a thaw set in, but the explosion of a nuclear device in 1998 triggered a fresh round of U.S. sanctions. Bill Clinton began to turn things around with a hugely successful India visit during his last year in office. The Bush administration took matters further, with a landmark accord on civil nuclear co-operation that remains the centrepiece of the transformed relationship.

The nuclear accord accomplished two things. It admitted India into the global nuclear club, despite its principled refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Indians overwhelmingly reject as the last vestige of apartheid). More important, it acknowledged that U.S. exceptionalism had found a sibling. Thanks to the U.S., which strong-armed the 45 countries of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group into swallowing their concerns that special treatment for India could constitute a precedent for rogue nuclear aspirants such as Pakistan, North Korea, and Iran, there is now an “Indian exception”. Few things could have been more gratifying to a deeply proud nation that was tired of being constantly hyphenated by Washington with its smaller, dysfunctional neighbour, Pakistan.

Under Obama, nothing quite so dramatic has occurred. The U.S.’ grand strategic orientation has inevitably focussed on the rise of China, which Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated is now Washington’s most important bilateral relationship on the planet. And on the subcontinent, the Obama Administration’s understandable concerns in Afghanistan have made Pakistan loom much larger in its consciousness than India. Obama understands that no successful outcome in Afghanistan is possible without Pakistan, and is therefore attentive to Islamabad’s priorities in ways that New Delhi finds occasionally irritating. It is fair to say that during Obama’s Nobel Prize-winning first year in office, sceptical India was largely immune to the wave of what one might irreverently call “globama-isation” that swept the rest of the planet.

The president meets India’s business leaders.
The president meets India’s business leaders.

But there has been progress on other fronts—the small but significant steps that add up to strengthening the sinews of a relationship. Agreements on seemingly mundane subjects such as agriculture, education, health, energy security, and even space exploration testify to enhanced co-operation, and the two governments have proclaimed “initiatives” on clean energy and climate change as well as educational linkages between U.S. and Indian universities. But a visit that merely reinforces this kind of co-operation will not be seen as the major-league success both Obama and Singh must be hoping for.

After all, there is no reason why a more significant breakthrough should not occur. India is clearly going to join the U.S. among the top five world powers of the 21st century. Both countries are anchored in democratic systems, and are committed to the rule of law, diversity, and pluralism, and the encouragement of innovation and enterprise. The two countries’ trade and investment relations have multiplied, giving each nation a more significant stake in the other than ever before. The U.S. is India’s largest trading partner—if you take goods and services together—and its exports to India have, in the past five years, grown faster than to any other country. The Confederation of Indian Industry estimates that services trade between the two countries is likely to grow from the present $60 billion (Rs 2.6 lakh crore) to over $150 billion in the next six years. The engagement of the two countries is reinforced by the growing Indian presence in America—the 100,000 Indian students (the largest foreign student community there) supplement the flourishing and influential Indo-American community, who enjoy the highest median income of any American ethnic group and are playing an increasingly prominent role in politics.

The way in which the two countries are economically useful for each other’s basic objectives was brought out in a recent speech in Washington by India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, who declared that “the U.S. is a crucial partner in our enterprise to abolish mass poverty within a democratic framework and open society, while respecting human rights and rule of law”. In turn, he added, “India offers a large and growing market for the U.S., creating jobs in both economies, adding competitiveness to U.S. firms, and synergy in innovation and technology.” This mutually beneficial relationship clearly gives both countries a strong reason for congruence and a powerful argument for continued closeness.

Nonetheless there is a perception that these are “feel-good” aspects of the relationship that mask a lack of substantive progress on hard strategic, political, and security issues. While Obama made it a point to ensure that Singh was the first state guest of his administration, some Indian commentators scoffed at what they saw as empty symbolism—“we get the state dinners, while Pakistan gets $5 billion worth of weapons”. How understanding is the U.S. of India’s security concerns, especially vis-à-vis Pakistan? Does Washington welcome India’s desire for recognition of its enhanced status in the world, such as through a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council? The answers appear to be mixed.

THERE HAS BEEN SOME U.S. appreciation for India’s role in Afghanistan but greater receptivity to Pakistani objections than New Delhi considers reasonable. New Delhi remains concerned about the possibility of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan that implicitly leaves the country to the mercies of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, which has been known to foment and guide terrorist actions against India. Co-operation between India and the U.S. on counter-terrorism has improved after 26/11, but the two countries have not gone much beyond information sharing (though the access somewhat belatedly granted to the Pakistani-American terrorist enabler David Coleman Headley helped overcome Indian misgivings about the depth of this co-operation). This is one area where real teeth could be added, not least to reassure Indians that the U.S.’ understandable desire to cut its losses in “Af-Pak” would not leave our country more vulnerable to the depredations of those who stand to gain from an American departure.

India has, by its own nonaligned standards, taken greater steps towards embracing Washington’s security views than many would have imagined possible just a decade ago. Military co-operation between India and the U.S. has increased substantially, and has featured both joint exercises and a significant number of high-level visits. There is scope for further enhanced collaboration, not merely defence-oriented, but also on disaster relief, anti-piracy, and broader humanitarian and maritime security issues. These are all win-win possibilities. So, too, is the area of Indian defence purchases and equipment needs, which must inevitably be of interest to American manufacturers and investors (though New Delhi needs to have the political courage to take advantage of all that the U.S. can offer). In turn, the Obama administration moved decisively to complete pending issues remaining from the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, most notably an agreement on the reprocessing of spent fuel, whereas India has just passed a compromise nuclear liability bill that does little to reassure potential American suppliers that India’s would be a safe market to sell their reactors to.

On the Security Council, the U.S. has tended to take an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, which seems too complacent about the genuine frustrations of many (especially in India) that it still reflects the geopolitical realities of 1945 rather than that of a changed post-colonial world. Washington has never explicitly endorsed India’s claims to a permanent seat, but there are indications that it is beginning to accept that the need for reform of the Security Council is pressing. And more important, when reform comes, it must include a place for New Delhi. At the same time, many in Washington feel that India is yet to earn its place by “constructive” (read pro-American) positions on key international issues like Iran, Iraq, or North Korea, and they fear that New Delhi’s prickly independence could make it an irritant on the Council, rather than a blessing. Indians retort that a permanent seat should merely reflect the reality of their country’s importance in the world and not be seen as a reward for good behaviour. If Obama takes a significant step towards acknowledging the legitimacy of this claim, it will go a long way towards making his visit a success in Indian eyes.

ONE THING HE DOESN’T SAY will help as well. India is aware that there are those in Washington who believe that pressurising New Delhi to make concessions to Pakistan over the Kashmir dispute would help advance U.S. interests in Afghanistan. New Delhi appreciated Obama’s consciousness of Indian sensitivities on this score and quietly applauded his decision to leave Kashmir out of the mandate of his Special Representative on “Af-Pak”, Richard Holbrooke. Now, with Kashmir in turmoil again, there will certainly be aides in the U.S. State Department and the White House telling Obama he can’t remain silent. Yet he must eschew the temptation, on this visit to India, to make any soothing noises about Kashmir. The sort of seemingly harmless pablum that diplomatic speechwriters craft in their sleep can seriously ruffle feathers in hypersensitive South Block, and could spoil what might otherwise prove a successful visit.

The economic relationship between the two countries has been a source of satisfaction, but it is no longer without concern. India has thrived on U.S. outsourcing to its IT-enabled services sector, and there has been an assumption that the recession will only drive up the demands for outsourcing by cost-conscious American corporations. Unfortunately, however, instead of greater market access in this sector, Indians have been facing signs of an American political backlash, ranging from state-level decisions not to outsource major government contracts, to the imposition of punitive visa fees on white-collar experts working for Indian technology providers. The U.S. has facilitated the globalised world by proselytising for the very policies (capitalism, open markets, and international institutions) that it now seems to be abandoning. You don’t have to watch Lou Dobbs on TV (though many foreigners did, until CNN International mercifully took him off the air) to conclude that the U.S. is acting as if it is now suspicious of the economic policies it has traditionally advocated—free markets, trade, immigration, and technological change. Indians are not the only ones to fear that, just as the world is opening up, America may be closing down. The India-U.S. relationship would suffer seriously if, beset by internal preoccupations, America turns inwards and forgets its responsibilities to the well-being of others.

President John F. Kennedy once memorably said, “The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.” The problem for many Americans is that in recent years it seems that cost has been paid with a credit card. Many are understandably unwilling to keep paying it. But it would be disingenuous to think that increased “America-first”ism would not have consequences for Washington’s bilateral relationships with countries whose economies have become increasingly dependent on it, especially India’s.

A Prime Minister and a President.
A Prime Minister and a President.

Indeed, global concerns should loom large in the bilateral relationship, since both countries sense a shared responsibility for preserving a rule-based, open and democratic world order, and for the management of the global economy. Co-operation on maintaining a system of free trade and globalisation amid global economic recovery is in the two countries’ mutual interest, and the emergence of the G-20 as the world’s premier institution for dealing with international economic questions gives both countries a more representative and equitable platform to pursue their collaborative engagement. India and the U.S. could also act together to preserve the global commons—the environment, high seas, outer space, and cyberspace—all areas in which the two democracies, one the world’s richest, the other still emerging from poverty, have different but not irreconcilable approaches. Co-operation on the innovative development of green energy technologies, for instance, and on space exploration or combating cyber-crime, are obvious examples of issues that did not exist before the 21st century dawned.

Other possibilities for co-operative action could cover joint responses to natural disasters in South and Southeast Asia, agricultural research and development, and even nuclear proliferation, now that India is no longer lumped together with the “bad guys” on that issue. But the U.S. must rein in the fulminations of its own “non-proliferation ayatollahs”, who are prepared to live with a nuclear China and take for granted a nuclear Britain but can’t abide the thought of Indians with nukes. Washington must lift the export controls and restrictions on sharing high technology with India that understandably is seen by many in New Delhi as an affront.

Globally, India is looking for a more inclusive multilateralism, and would not accept, as some foreign observers have suggested, a G2 condominium of America and China. There is a consensus in our country that India should seek to continue to contribute to international security and prosperity, to a well-ordered and equitable world, and to democratic, sustainable development for all. This means that, in the wake of the global economic crisis, we must work to redistribute power in the international financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, as well as in the political organs of global governance such as the Security Council. This is an area where New Delhi expects greater understanding from Washington.

But India must beware of seeing the Obama visit in terms of a checklist of Indian expectations alone. The fact is that Washington has reason to feel that New Delhi has not done enough to define its own role as an emerging great power, and consequently has no settled vision of what it wants from a strategic partnership with the U.S. India is gradually moving from its traditional obsession with preserving its strategic autonomy in the face of external pressure, to a broader acceptance of its own responsibilities in shaping the world in which it wants to thrive. But there is not yet a fully-fledged consensus on what that entails and how far it permits the two countries to flesh out the meaning of the expression “natural allies” first used by both governments in the current decade.

Part of the success of the Obama visit will lie in how effectively the two countries manage the differences that inevitably will arise between them. Diplomats like to pretend that there are no difficulties or misunderstandings, when several have arisen in the recent past. An illustrative list would include different priorities on terrorism and mismatched threat perceptions, incompatible views on Pakistan as a credible partner for peace, and continued disagreements on aspects of trade relations, none more evident than in their duelling positions in the Doha Round. There are also issues of style—American insensitivity and Indian preachiness have tended to rub each other the wrong way. But on geopolitical fundamentals, there is no real clash of interests. On no issue of vital national interest to either country is the other arraigned on the wrong side.

BUT THE EXTERNAL SITUATION has been changing. Politically, we are entering a period of transition from dominance by a single power to a more balanced distribution of power in the international system, though still short of true multi-polarity. New powers are rising, new alliances are forming, and we are witnessing the ascent of a new power in China. Challenges in our immediate neighbourhood, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, have made us conscious that our development is vulnerable to the impact of forces and events beyond our borders.

The U.S. has also to come to terms with a world whose centre of gravity has clearly moved away from the Atlantic to Asia, and to determine where it sees itself in relation to the incontestable rise of China and the growing prowess of India. If the relationship with India is going to become as important to American security as Europe’s once was, wouldn’t America need to revise its own positions on the threats and challenges faced by India?

Yet the fundamental driver for long-term Indo-U.S. relations remains the importance of America—the nation, not just the government—as a partner in India’s own remaking. The basic task for India in international affairs is to wield a foreign policy that enables and facilitates the domestic transformation of our country. The relationship with the U.S. is part of an effort to make possible the transformation of India’s economy and society through our engagement with the world, while promoting our own national values (of pluralism, democracy, social justice, and secularism) within our own society. The India-U.S. partnership must work for a global environment that is supportive of these internal priorities, and that facilitates our energy security, our food security, and our environmental future. When we succeed in our national transformation, we will be including more and more of our people in the great narrative of hope that has been the narrative of social and economic development in America over the last 200 years. That is why Obama’s visit is likely to mark a hugely important step in the building of an enduring edifice of co-operation.

Shashi Tharoor is a member of the Indian Parliament, a former United Nations under-secretary general, and an author.

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