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India’s Obama problem

That a charismatic African-American, Senator Barack Obama, has a good shot at becoming the next US President is indeed a historic moment in the evolution of American domestic politics.

Written by Crajamohan |
June 9, 2008 12:36:51 am

That a charismatic African-American, Senator Barack Obama, has a good shot at becoming the next US President is indeed a historic moment in the evolution of American domestic politics. For all its extraordinary interest and vicarious participation, the rest of the world does not have a vote in the US elections. In the light of our own experience, it should not be difficult to see that large democracies don’t give a damn to outsiders’ views.

Given America’s global weight, many parts of the world will be affected by the potential foreign policy changes under a President Obama. Those changes are likely to be within the known range of disputation in the US foreign policy establishment and entirely unrelated to the unfolding of a post-racial America.

New Delhi’s problem with Obama arises from the prospect that he might reverse President George W. Bush’s bold departures from the traditional US policy towards India. To be fair, in his outreach to the influential Indian-American community, Obama has promised to build a “close strategic partnership” with New Delhi.

But the devil, as always, is in the detail. Parsing Obama’s statements so far, there is the danger that India’s two core national security concerns — nuclear weapons and Jammu and Kashmir — might be back in play under a Democratic administration.

Thanks to the vacillations of the UPA government, the implementation of the historic civil nuclear initiative in the remaining months of the Bush term appears increasingly difficult. If India kicks the can down the road, there might be serious political trouble under an Obama administration.

Although many senior Democrats in the US Congress, including Senator Hillary Clinton, had warmly supported the Bush proposal to bend the nuclear regime in favour of India. Obama was not one of them.

His attempts to deny life-time supplies of nuclear fuel to future Indian reactors, through the so-called Obama amendment, almost wrecked the nuclear deal. It needed Bush’s strong political will to overcome the Obama amendment in the bilateral negotiations on the 123 agreement during 2007.

Although he eventually voted for the Hyde Act that facilitates US civil nuclear cooperation with India, Obama lent his political voice to the non-proliferation groups in Washington seeking to undermine it.

Many of the non-proliferation activists, who are likely to fill crucial arms-control jobs in the Obama administration, genuinely believe Bush gave away the store to India and that the deal needs to be renegotiated to make it more “balanced”. (That should be a warning to the BJP leader, L.K. Advani, who has claimed with some bombast that he wants to rework the deal.)

Any reopening of the terms of the nuclear deal under a Democratic administration will inevitably focus on getting India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and accept a moratorium on the production of nuclear materials for weapons, the precursor to the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty.

Obama has promised to push both the CTBT and the FMCT that Bush has avoided imposing on India. Unlike the Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, Obama has not yet made the promise to implement the Indo-US nuclear deal in its present form.

For nearly eight years, Bush consciously kept Kashmir off the bilateral, regional and international agenda. Despite repeated pressures from Islamabad, Bush refused to interpose himself in the Indo-Pak negotiations on Kashmir. This helped persuade Pakistan to embark on productive bilateral talks with India.

Obama might well change all this. In the Foreign Affairs article last summer, outlining his foreign policy agenda, Obama not only talked about Kashmir but linked it to Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Consider Obama’s dangerous argument in full:

“I will join with our allies in insisting — not simply requesting — that Pakistan crack down on the Taliban, pursue Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, and end its relationship with all terrorist groups. At the same time, I will encourage dialogue between Pakistan and India to work towards resolving their dispute over Kashmir and between Afghanistan and Pakistan to resolve their differences and develop the Pashtun border region. If Pakistan can look towards the east (India) with confidence, it will be less likely to believe its interests are best advanced through cooperation with the Taliban.”

Put simply, Obama appears to be offering American diplomatic activism on Kashmir in return for Islamabad’s cooperation in fighting al-Qaeda and Taliban. Taken together with Pakistan’s renewed rhetoric on United Nations resolutions on Kashmir, this suggests a possible deterioration in the international environment on J&K during an Obama presidency.

Indo-US relations have surged in the past few years because Bush broke with the traditional American policy on nuclear weapons and Kashmir. This, in turn, was rooted in Bush’s recognition of democratic India’s exceptionalism and his perception of it as a rising great power.

Obama, in contrast, might take the United States back to the old liberal-internationalist view of India as a problem for the global nuclear order and as recalcitrant on J&K. For Obama, India is an interesting place; it might even be important as a regional player in South Asia, but not significant enough globally to deserve special treatment.

India can address its problem with Obama in two ways. India and its friends in the US could try and persuade Obama and his team to rethink their policy pronouncements on India. It will be smarter, however, to make it more difficult for the next administration to reverse the Bush initiative towards India. It will indeed be criminal negligence on the part of New Delhi not to attempt in the next few months a consolidation of the massive gains in Indo-US relations under Bush.

The writer is a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore iscrmohan@ntu.edu.sg

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