In July this year, agitated over Russian meddling in its elections, the US Congress wanted to punish countries which dealt with Moscow, and India was one of those countries. But, US Defence Secretary General (retd) James R Mattis wrote a cogently-reasoned letter, arguing for exemptions to India, which wanted to buy the S-400 air defence system from Russia.
“The fundamental question we must ask ourselves is do we wish to strengthen our partners in key regions or leave them with no other option than to turn to Russia, thereby undermining a once-in-a-generation opportunity to more closely align nations with the US vision for global security and stability,” Mattis, known by his nickname “Mad Dog”, wrote in a letter to Congress on July 20.
Mattis stepping down would mean India has lost a strong advocate in the US administration led by President Donald Trump. The US Defence Secretary is the only Cabinet-rank official from the Trump administration to have visited India twice — in September 2017 for a bilateral visit, and again in September 2018 for the first Indo-US 2+2 dialogue.
India signed the S-400 deal with Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India in early October this year, after the US Congress gave New Delhi a waiver.
While Mattis played a key role in the granting of the waiver, he was also a key player in the Trump administration’s South Asia strategy.
Mattis’ first visit to India in September 2017 was soon after Trump announced the “South Asia strategy”, where India’s role was actively pursued.
Delhi announced in early September 2017 its plans to start 116 high-impact small development projects in Afghanistan.
While India conveyed publicly that it would not contribute troops to Afghanistan, Mattis assured that US troops were going to stay to maintain security in the conflict-torn country.
On Friday, one of the reasons for his stepping down was his policy differences with Trump over troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Mattis had been the sounding board for Indian officials and diplomats in the last two years.
The US Defence Secretary was also clear that the “strong relationship between the world’s two largest democracies did not begin with the current interlocutors from both sides”.
“We inherited it, and now we ensure it is even stronger when we pass it to our successors on a higher trajectory than we received it,” he said in September this year, after the 2+2 dialogue.
Early this month, when Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman went to the US, Mattis was questioned about the sanctions waiver on S-400. He appeared confident and said, “We will work everything out. Trust me.” India will miss those reassuring words.