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This town,sullen and self-absorbed

As their leaders meet,Indians and Americans are preoccupied with the need to renew and reform their domestic political systems.

Written by Robert M. Hathaway |
September 27, 2013 12:04:19 am

As their leaders meet,Indians and Americans are preoccupied with the need to renew and reform their domestic political systems.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will find a gloomy,sullen and self-absorbed Washington when he visits the US capital today. Disappointment and disillusion with President Barack Obama is widespread among his friends. His political adversaries are far harsher.

Washington is still reeling from last week’s shooting rampage that killed 12 navy employees. More fundamentally,many Americans are asking whether their system works any longer,and whether their moment in the sun has passed. Under these circumstances,the prime minister will have to compete with other US preoccupations for the attention of politicians,officials and the media.

The government’s fiscal year ends next Monday,but Congress has not adopted a budget nor authorised any government spending for the year beginning October 1. Tea party activists talk cheerfully of shutting down the government next week because new spending has not been approved. Even if that deadline is successfully passed,the treasury faces default and a credit downgrade a few weeks later,unless Congress lifts limits on the amount of money the government may borrow. Congress’s inability to resolve these pressing budget issues is linked to the continued passions surrounding Obama’s landmark healthcare programme,enacted into law three years ago. Congressional Republicans have held more than 40 votes to overturn the law,most recently last week,even though they know that neither the Senate nor the White House will support repeal.

Washington is more badly polarised between the two parties than at any time in memory,but that’s only part of the challenge. Party leaders cannot control even their own members. Obama faces opposition from Democratic legislators over his threat to use military force against Syria,and liberals complain that he is too willing to negotiate with the Republicans on domestic spending. On the Republican side,many backbenchers in the House of Representatives are in open rebellion against the budget plan favoured by their leaders. House Speaker John Boehner’s worst nightmares are caused not by Democrats,but by the sizeable group of House Republicans who support Tea Party-backed slash-and-burn tactics.

Indeed,the dysfunction of the House Republicans makes Democratic infighting look positively tame. But any Democratic inclination to sit back and enjoy the GOP spectacle ought to be stifled; while the politicians squabble,the country’s serious problems only worsen.

The talk of the town in Washington these days is This Town,a scathing new book by journalist Mark Leibovich. The author details an unholy alliance of politicians,lobbyists and the media,whose pursuit of power and headlines has rendered Washington virtually incapable of seriously considering,let alone solving,the nation’s myriad problems.

Much of Washington’s dysfunction seems petty and irrelevant to most Americans,although they are far more affected by the nation’s broken political system than they appear to realise. A new study,echoing earlier findings,reports that American families are increasingly polarised along race,class and educational lines. Other surveys indicate that social mobility is falling and income disparities widening. For many,the Great Recession is not a receding memory but a current reality.

India,of course,has its own problems; the US does not hold a monopoly on either political gridlock or anxiety about the viability of its political model. Neither Indians nor Americans,however,should gloat over the political,institutional and leadership failures of the other side. Each country has a profound national interest in the continued success and further achievements of the other.

What does any of this have to do with the prime minister’s visit to Washington today? In theory,both governments should be able to walk and chew gum simultaneously,to manage (or not manage) their domestic problems while also conducting skilful diplomacy. But as is often the case,the facts don’t easily line up with the theory.

In part because of the political paralysis in both countries,amplified in India by an approaching election,this is likely to be a status quo visit,marked by consolidation,not innovation,by small steps rather than giant leaps. That is not necessarily a bad thing; it can be a sign that the India-US relationship has matured into a broad-gauged,workaday partnership that oft as not functions below the radar — itself a sure indication that the partnership has evolved from a shiny new toy into a normal feature of the international landscape.

To be sure,there will be plenty of weighty issues on the table,and the two sides will not find themselves in agreement in all cases. Obama will want India to be more forthcoming in efforts to ensure that Syria is stripped of its capacity to use chemical weapons. Singh will ask the US to rein in its “friends” in Pakistan,especially in light of the recent bloodshed along the Line of Control. Afghanistan should be high on the agendas of both leaders as the time for the withdrawal of the last US (and Nato) combat troops draws closer. Many regional experts predict that a post-2014 Afghanistan will face chaos,and once again become a safe haven for extremists targeting India or the US. New Delhi and Washington claim to have similar views on what a post-2014 Afghanistan should look like. Even so,it is hard to see how the desire of most Americans to be rid of the Afghan burden lines up with India’s expectation that Washington not leave the region in turmoil.

As ever,it is impossible to separate diplomacy from domestic politics. Obama has frequently spoken of the need for “nation-building” at home. Perhaps the best thing both countries can do to pave the way for a genuine bilateral partnership capable of meeting 21st-century needs is to renew and reform their domestic political systems. If each country makes itself an attractive partner for the other,the diplomats will figure out the rest.

The writer directs the Asia programme at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington,DC. His latest book is the co-edited ‘New Security Challenges in Asia’

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