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It is not exactly a secret that India-US relations are going through a rough patch. Getting this relationship back on track will require extraordinary vigilance and nimble footwork, qualities that are lacking on both sides. India’s ambassador to the US, the always rigorous and cogent S. Jaishankar, in a recent speech to the Carnegie Endowment, clearly outlined the challenges. In part, this relationship is a victim of its own success.
The very special conjuncture that had put the wind beneath the wings of this relationship has dissipated. He was too polite to say so, but the Obama administration does not seem to have a strategic framework within which to think of India, and the strategic frameworks it does have are constantly subverted by global events and its own half-hearted engagements. When there is no clarity on strategy, every aspect of the relationship becomes more transactional.
India’s growth story has slowed down. This has two consequences. Interest in and respect for India automatically diminishes with a slowdown in growth. India also loses support from the most powerful lobby in the US, namely business. There is an air of exasperation with India, and while a lot of it is exaggerated, economic uncertainty leads to uncertain interest.
On a range of issues, particularly intellectual property rights and nuclear liability, India and the US have divergent interests. India is right to stick to its positions. But in the absence of momentum elsewhere, these divergences stick out. Even if the Obama administration is ready to lower the temperature on these issues, the fact remains that many Congressmen have little to lose, and potentially much to gain personally, by grandstanding on these issues. Finally, on a whole range of global issues, from Russia to Syria, India and the US will not see eye to eye.
But the overwhelming sense you get is how much respect India has lost on these issues. The question is not whether we agree with the US. The gulf between Indian and American positions in the UN on various things has always been vast. It is a fact that India does not seem to be able to cogently project and explain its position. The differences are attributed, not to a deep strategic logic on India’s part, but to it taking a defensive and lazy option.
Again, some of this is exaggerated, but it is hard to blame others for not seeing our deep strategic compulsions when we don’t fully understand them either. The nimble India, intelligently trying to navigate opportunities, is being replaced by the inertial India, a bystander and marginal player on the chessboard of world politics.
Even when structural factors are going in the right direction, relationships need nurturing. But they do so even more when the momentum is shifting. From that point of view, this relationship now has a steeper hill to climb.
Any cold political analysis will tell you that if a BJP government comes to power, the Narendra Modi issue is going to continue to cast a shadow on this relationship. Modi himself may or may not nurse a grudge against the US. He may be prepared to move on. We just don’t know. But a strange domestic configuration in the US will keep the issue alive in ways that will prove an irritant. There will be a triple conjuncture of forces keeping it alive.
Many officials in the Obama administration and Democrats in general do want to make human rights part of the global agenda. We can dismiss them on grounds of hypocrisy, but the fact is that this is the predisposition of many members of this administration.
Second, there is a group of religious conservatives who want to make religious freedom part of the global agenda. Their influence in Congress is not to be underestimated. And the third is the self-styled liberal academic establishment among NRIs on the east coast. This group is small, not politically potent.
But its location in key universities and its visibility in the liberal establishment make it more influential in promoting an understanding of India that can sometimes be simplistic. With many of this establishment, it is more about staking out their moral positions than dealing with the complexity of India. Some of them have less hesitation in using the liberal establishment to get the US to sit in judgement on Indian institutions and democracy.
The hatred of Modi will trump their anti-colonial pieties, and push them to disregard the organised hypocrisies of sovereignty on which the international system runs. The issue is not whether their views on Modi are right; the issue is the implications of their positions for India-US relations. So even if Modi wants to move on, the issue will keep niggling. There is a resolution in Congress, supported by 50-odd members, on including religious freedom in the strategic dialogue.
Now the overwhelming majority in Congress may act sensibly on this matter. But both India and the US have this feature: it is not the majorities that determine the course of events. Small groups can exercise veto power; they can keep issues alive on the agenda. A lot of diplomacy will have to be expended on dealing with this issue on both sides. This is just a fact, and those interested in the future of the relationship might as well deal with it.
There is the optimistic view that 8 per cent growth solves most strategic problems. There is something to that idea, particularly if it leverages effective business lobbies behind India, without sacrificing our core regulatory interests.
But the relationship between government and business sentiment is reciprocal rather than one way. If the vibes from the administration and Congress are not fully enthusiastic, business interest will also be slow to pick up. Business looks at concrete opportunities, but it also takes its cues about credibility from a larger cultural and political environment. Last time round, there was the growth and strategic story.
But there was also the general cultural projection: Thomas Friedman as a single-handed PR agency for the transformative possibilities India represented as an exemplar of a flat world zeitgeist. This time, even if growth picks up, there is no narrative of newness. In an interesting way, the growth story in Africa is beginning to now translate into a narrative of optimism: more hopeful stories, a sense of Africa being unbound. In short, it will be a tall order to counter the narratives dampening the India-US relationship with narratives that make India interesting again. There are few constituencies for that right now.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’