What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, India and the United States were embroiled in bitter controversy after American authorities arrested an Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade. Next week, US President Barack Obama, will be guest of honour at India’s Republic Day parade.
Equally striking, a year ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, was an outcast to a large segment of Washington officialdom because of his alleged inaction during anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002. In the course of the past year, however, both parties have opted for pragmatism over moral misgivings, on one side, and grudge-bearing, on the other. Now, in a matter of days, the once-scorned chief minister will be hosting the president of the country that so recently found him unworthy of diplomatic intercourse.
But what sort of Obama will be coming to India? A “lame duck” whose party was soundly rebuffed by the voters in last November’s congressional elections? A rejected president whose political adversaries now control both houses of Congress? A leader without followers?
Those who draw this picture understand neither the man nor the office he occupies. Obama, aware that he is in the last quarter of his presidency, is by all accounts determined to cement a positive legacy with an ambitious agenda and an activist approach to governing. His polling numbers are on the rise. Moreover, the “lame duck” narrative obscures the fact that the US presidency bestows upon its holder more power than any other office in the world. In a Washington riven by rancorous partisanship, Republican lawmakers joined their Democratic colleagues in welcoming the trip.
Yet, Obama’s visit should not be allowed to obscure the reality that neither country has fully decided what place the other should hold in its calculations on foreign policy and national security. Many Indians remain ambivalent about America, finding it simultaneously attractive and hypocritical, seductive and menacing. Some question whether Obama deserves the chief guest honour.
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A similar debate is taking place in the US, as can be seen in duelling commentaries in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, America’s most influential foreign policy journal. Robert Boggs, a retired US diplomat with long experience in South Asia and multiple postings in India, writes that India (like China) views the US as a competitor and “presumptuous superpower”. Delhi, he contends, is unlikely to become a “critical partner” to the US in the foreseeable future.
That assessment is far too bleak, retorts Nicholas Burns, also a retired diplomat and one of the leading actors in the revitalisation of US-India ties that occurred under George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh. Boggs’s pessimism is outdated, he asserts, and fails to recognise the substantial progress that has marked bilateral ties over the past decade. A more accurate picture of the relationship, Burns maintains, is shown by Indian worries that the US is leaving Afghanistan too precipitously. Delhi wants America to remain engaged in the region, Burns concludes; this is not the stance of a regional power that wishes the hegemon gone.
Paeans to common democratic values or shared anxiety over the growth of Chinese power have not and will not resolve these internal debates. The best way to settle this question, in both countries, is for each nation to demonstrate its usefulness to the other. Obama and Modi could do worse than to adopt this idea of usefulness as the guiding principle for the forthcoming presidential visit.
What does being of use mean? For one, each could help the other on issues not directly related to the bilateral relationship. Not out of kindness or altruism, but because doing so would advance the national interests of both.
For instance, Washington might step up its diplomacy on behalf of India’s quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Obama earned accolades in Delhi a few years ago when he committed the US government, for the first time, to backing India for permanent UNSC membership. Since then, however — nothing. Elevating this issue in the context of broader UNSC reform would please India and simultaneously, by encouraging the evolution of a more effective UN, also advance important American priorities.
In similar fashion, Delhi could do more to caution Russia against the dangerous adventurism in which it has engaged, most prominently in Ukraine and Crimea. The Modi government should be willing to have uncomfortable conversations with Moscow, not as a favour to the Americans but because a world where rules are routinely disregarded and national borders violated is so patently contrary to Indian interests.
A recent study released by the Woodrow Wilson Centre, one of the leading think tanks in Washington, suggests another avenue where India and the US could be of use to each other while promoting their own interests. Raymond Vickery, the study’s author, argues that, whether the yardstick is availability, affordability, security or environmental impact, an invigorated India-US partnership in the field of energy has much to offer.
A shrewd observer of the political scenes in both India and the US, Vickery notes that energy will be a key determinant of whether Modi’s government succeeds. A US-India engagement on energy, he writes, could help the prime minister achieve his economic growth agenda for India, and simultaneously serve as a driver of bilateral relations for decades to come. For this to occur, however, both countries have to enact legal, policy and regulatory changes that will provoke domestic opposition.
Today, the hyperventilation surrounding the Khobragade affair seems startling, if not incomprehensible. That so much passion and bile could be generated by what appears, in retrospect, a third-tier matter shows how an important relationship can be hijacked by inflexible bureaucrats, self-serving politicians and an over-the-top media. It also serves to underscore just how brittle the US-India relationship remains.
Modi, by honouring Obama as the chief guest for Republic Day celebrations, has vividly demonstrated his intent to replace some of this brittleness with steel. If he succeeds in this endeavour, historians will see Modi’s bold move as a brilliant illustration of the statesmanship India, and the world, so badly needs in these troubled times.
The writer is a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC