Manmohan Singh in Obama’s court

There has been criticism that the US-India relations are in a state of drift. Source: AP

There has been criticism that the US-India relations are in a state of drift. Source: AP

The heart of the matter is that the euphoria about US-India relations post the nuclear deal was simply not sustainable in the long run.

For a prime minister who got branded – unfairly, to my mind – as the most “pro-American” in independent India, Manmohan Singh’s visit to the White House on Friday has an anti-climactic touch. There is near-total absence, on either side, of the sort of rhetoric that traditionally characterized such events. And this is the last time Manmohan Singh visits White House as the leader of a billion plus Indians.

Meanwhile, next Monday also happens to be an important anniversary date. Five years ago the US Congress gave final approval on 1st October 2008 to the agreement facilitating nuclear cooperation between the US and India. Ironically, neither side is eager to celebrate the 5th anniversary. The nuclear deal was expected to bring India and the US together beneath the canopy of a strategic partnership, which has been variously described as a “defining partnership of the 21st century.”

Pundits on both sides were euphoric about “an unprecedented convergence of interests, values, and inter-societal ties in a way never experienced before,” to quote Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In a Congressional testimony when the nuclear deal was under negotiation, Tellis identified that “in the foreseeable future both Washington and New Delhi will be bound by common interests in a diverse set of issue-areas.” He listed these “strongly convergent” issue-areas as eight in number and they are worth recalling today:

  • Preventing Asia from being dominated by any single power (read China);
  • Eliminating the threats posed by state sponsors of terrorism;
  • Arresting the further spread of weapons of mass destruction and related technologies;
  • Promoting the spread of democracy;
  • Advancing the liberal international economic order;
  • Protecting the global commons;
  • Preserving energy security; and,
  • Safeguarding the global environment.

There was no dearth of Indian pundits who happily joined the chorus and spun airy thoughts. The hyperbole indeed raised very high expectations about the nuclear deal. But these expectations have remained unfulfilled and were, in fact, plainly unrealistic in the first instance. Today, the shortfalls have come to haunt the relationship. The chorus has vanished and there has been criticism that the US-India relations are in a state of drift and New Delhi should take the blame for it.

In all fairness, the nuclear deal brought about a sea change in the mutual perceptions of the US and India regarding the relationship. In tangible terms, India is today able to access uranium supplies from abroad, which in turn enables it to divert the scarce domestic reserves for the nuclear weapon program. As for the US, the new climate of relationship enabled it to make an entry into the massive Indian market for arms and deals so far struck by American arms manufacturers already exceed $10 billion in value.

The blame game

On the negative side, the US gradually lost the enthusiasm it claimed to possess in 2008 for getting India inducted into the technology control regimes, especially the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Nor is Washington fulfilling the commitments on transfer of reprocessing technology. Indeed, it no more talks about working toward securing for India a permanent membership of the UN Security Council, either.

On the other hand, the US feels embittered that India got “more” out of the nuclear deal, since the expected nuclear commerce that Delhi had pledged – buying dozens of American nuclear reactors to produce electricity – has not materialized and may remain a distant dream until the Indian government “tweaked” its nuclear liability legislation to meet the pre-conditions of the American manufacturers. In the complicated era of coalition politics in India with the political spectrum so much fragmented, this is too much to expect from the Manmohan Singh government.

Hence the blame game. But the campaign that the US-India ties are drifting and India backtracked on nuclear trade also serves a purpose. It forms part of a “psywar” to put the Indian elites under pressure to “perform”. No doubt, the Indian political elites are coming under pressure from the lobbyists to “compensate” the American side by at least buying more weapons from the US so that Washington is somehow kept happy for the present. This is one thing.

Second, there is sustained pressure to open up the Indian economy to facilitate penetration by the American business, boosting US exports. The American side knows how to play the game, especially the present administration whose agenda is the recovery of the US economy. Thus, President Barack Obama is hosting a lunch in honor of Manmohan Singh and the Americans have flagged this as an exceptional honor being bestowed on the Indian prime minister because he’d only be the second visiting dignitary that the US president is hosting to a lunch – the other VIP was the Sultan of Brunei.

Pray, what could be there in common possibly in Obama’s zone of consideration between Manmohan Singh and Hassanal Bolkiah is not so difficult to fathom – simply put, both visitors are potential buyers of American products.

However, if the fizz has disappeared from the US-India strategic partnership that took birth from the 2008 nuclear deal, the real reasons for it is to be found somewhere else. On the one hand, the US is a diminished world power today and is rebalancing its global strategies. On the other hand, India is acutely aware of the consequent shift in the global balance of power that is happening and is making own adjustments to meet the emergent realities. Thus, even as Manmohan Singh arrives in Washington, an Indian team landed in Beijing to prepare thoroughly for a historic visit by the prime minister to China, which is expected in October.

No matter what comes out of it, the fact remains that the impending visit of Manmohan Singh to Washington did not deter Delhi from talking loudly about stepping up its oil imports from Iran. At the very least, it was smart thinking to arm-twist the Americans to allow more LNG exports from the US’ thriving shale gas industry.

Again, at the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg, President Vladimir Putin was pleasantly surprised that one of the most forceful supporters of the Russian line against foreign military intervention in Syria was none other than Manmohan Singh. In fact, the upcoming annual Russian-Indian summit will be an occasion to watch how Delhi factors in Russia’s “return” to the world stage as a great power. Conceivably, any forward movement in the normalization of India’s relations with China would have positive spinoff for the multilateral processes that bring Russia and India together – BRICS, RIC and the SCO.

The loss of sheen

The heart of the matter is that the euphoria about US-India relations was simply not sustainable in the long run. The dejected or jilted look that the American side wears about the current state of relations with India has no real relation to ground realities. It is a contrived look that aims at impressing the Indian stakeholders and hoodwink the loyalists only – its gullible middle class, its corporate sector and the lobbyists and fatcats. The point is, despite the constant stream of homilies that there is a “bipartisan consensus” in favor of the US’s partnership with India – as if it is a big favor being shown to the Indian people and their government – New Delhi figures at the end of the day in the Washington establishment circuit as a dubious interlocutor who is neither an ally nor a foe but an amorphous entity with an inscrutable mind.

To be sure, Manmohan Singh is not of the same mettle as Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff – he doesn’t have a revolutionary pedigree to treasure – to call off his visit to the White House or to take the affront to the UN podium when he heard about the revelations of the US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. But Manmohan Singh cannot possibly swallow the humiliation that Snowden’s latest disclosures on Tuesday show that the Boundless Informant viewed India as a favorite target.

New Delhi covered up for the US so far by bravely defending the widespread snooping by American intelligence agencies as in the interests of preventing “terrorist attacks.” Of course, the argument won’t wash anymore. This was by no stretch of imagination a part of the glorious war on terror. The disclosures on Tuesday reveal that the NSA selected India’s Permanent Mission to the UN at New York and its embassy in Washington with great deliberation and evil intentions as “location targets” for infiltrating the hard disks of office computers and telephones with hi-tech bugs.

Are we to believe that Indian diplomats posed threat to America’s homeland security? The disclosures say the Indian missions were specifically marked for various snooping techniques including one codenamed “Lifesaver,” which “facilitates imaging of the hard drive of computers.”

It is fortuitous that Snowden’s disclosures have come on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the US-India nuclear deal. They serve to bring a sense of proportions to the India-US discourse. Hopefully, this will also be the end of the blame game that the US-India ties have lost their “sheen”. There never was any real sheen in the first instance – except in the rhetoric.    

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