Structural limitations to blunt India-US strategic dialogue
Author : C.Uday Bhaskar
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton
will arrive in New Delhi late Monday for the second India- US Strategic
Dialogue with external affairs minister SM Krishna, the first having
been held in Washington DC in June 2010.
India has had an estranged relationship with the US, since May 1974,
when Delhi under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi carried out the Peaceful
Nuclear Explosion and the distinctive Indian mix of reticence, ambiguity
and prickliness has confounded the Beltway about how to deal with Delhi
(friend/foe, ally/adversary?) and this grey sheen has been the abiding
leit motif of the bilateral on both sides.
From the Indian perspective, the manner in which the White House has
shaped and pursued its relations with Beijing and Islamabad through the
Cold War decades has generated deep-seated concern about how much damage
US policies have done to the Indian interest and the 26-11 terrorist
attack on Mumbai is illustrative of the ambivalence and anxiety.
In short, India and the US need to harmonise the dissonance that
characterises their short-term and long term objectives within the
constraints of their respective political DNA and electoral compulsions.
The July 19 high-level political and strategic dialogue takes place
against the backdrop of the Mumbai terrorist attack of July 13 ; the
mixed signals about India's nuclear status apropos the exceptional
waiver accorded in September 2008 at the NSG; the fact that India
'surprised' the US leadership in its fighter aircraft choice; and that
the Indian nuclear liability bill makes civilian nuclear cooperation
less viable for potential US entities, among other areas of muted
discord and divergence.
This is not quite the texture that a nascent strategic partnership
between two large democracies should exude - but this qualitative index
reflects the structural limitations that inhibit the bilateral
relationship between the US and India and reiterates the need for more
candid and objective exchanges of this nature between the two sides.
For the record, since the completion of the historic July 2005 civilian
nuclear cooperation agreement between India and the US in late 2008,
during the last phase of Bush II, there has been speculation that the
bilateral agreement between the world's oldest and largest democracies
has lost its political traction and that the Obama administration had a
different perception of the relationship.
It was to allay this fear that Ms Clinton visited India in July 2009
interand in a much appreciated symbolic act, she first visited Mumbai on
July 18 that year and expressed her solidarity with the victims of the
26/11 tragedy by staying at the Taj Hotel.
In the intervening months PM Manmohan Singh was given a red-carpet
welcome at the White House and President Obama paid his first visit to
India - but the relationship remains limited and is yet to acquire the
vitality and robustness that was hoped for in 2008.
An illustration of this was provided in early July when it was revealed
at the India-US High Technology Cooperation Group meeting in Delhi that
despite all the sanctions and high technology denial regimes having
ostensibly been lifted by the US, the trade in this sector was under $ 8
For sure both sides will reiterate their commitment to improve on this
figure but the structural limitations persist. India and the US do not
have a clear roadmap about what is 'strategic' in their partnership
against the backdrop of the opaque and contradictory global systemic.
Post 9/11, the US and India are differently grappling with the scourge
of religious radicalism and related supra-nationalism and pre-meditated
The July 13 attack in Mumbai is the most recent reminder of the tenacity
of this challenge. The state sponsorship to the scourge is now globally
recognised and the Osama bin Laden operation is testimony to US
discomfort with its ally in the global war on terror.
It is only in recent months that the White House is talking 'tough-love'
to the GHQ in Rawalpindi. Terrorism and the support to such groups by
the Pakistan Army as part of its security 'strategy' has been an
intractable nettle for both India and the US.
It merits recall that when US Secretary of State General Colin Powell
visited India and Pakistan in July 2002, he noted of an interaction in
Islamabad: " President Musharraf has said, he's going to end the
cross-border infiltration, its going to be permanent, and in due course,
the (terrorist training) camp issue will resolve itself."
The astute Powell, who had just designated Pakistan as a major non-Nato
US ally, added: "I said to him (Musharraf)...I heard you, I am pleased
at that reassurance, but I cannot confirm what you are saying...so we
have to keep pushing you..."
Ms Clinton will have to continue this effort - for state sponsored
terrorism and how to deal with the source remains the next strategic
hurdle in the India-US relationship.
For Delhi, the challenge will be to overcome its traditional diffidence
about strategic issues and exude a sense that UPA-II has a cogent
template about the bilateral relationship with the USA and the political
resolve to protect and nurture the Indian interest for the long term.
(This article first appeared in the Economic Times on July 18, 2011)