India and Obama

By C Raja Mohan

Obama’s return should prompt Delhi to think big about bilateral ties with Washington

Official Delhi, including Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was quick to welcome the election of Barack Obama for a second term as the President of the United States. India is undoubtedly happy with political continuity in Washington for the next four years. The conventional wisdom in Delhi is that the Republicans are more empathetic than the Democrats to India’s political aspirations at the regional and global level. The Republican electoral platform this year was indeed effusive in its call for a “geopolitical alliance” with India.

Yet, the reality is that Barack Obama, despite many initial reservations in Delhi, has expanded the basis for India–US cooperation, the foundation for which was laid by his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. That India did not figure at all in the foreign policy argumentation between the Democrats and Republicans this year pointed to the absence of internal squabbling about Washington’s approach to Delhi. The current obstacles to the advancement of the bilateral relationship, however, are not in Washington, but in Delhi, where the political drift of the last few years has slowed down progress.

Four years ago, Delhi was deeply concerned about Obama’s approach to Pakistan and China, two major external factors that have historically clouded India’s relationship with the US. After initially musing about a possible American mediation between India and Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir, Obama quickly backtracked and has refused to involve Washington in India–Pakistan disputes.

In 2009, Obama seemed to accept Pakistan’s argument that India is part of the problem in Afghanistan. By the end of his term he was seeking Delhi’s deeper involvement in the economic and political stabilisation of Afghanistan. Obama has been more purposeful in confronting the sources of international terrorism in Pakistan. Beyond raining drone attacks on terror sanctuaries in Islamabad’s western borderlands, Obama boldly raided Osama bin Laden’s hideout deep inside Pakistan, executed him, and laid bare Pakistan’s play on both sides of the war on terror. Under Obama’s watch, counter-terror cooperation between Delhi and Washington has significantly expanded.

On China too, Obama’s policy turned the full circle in the last four years. In 2009, he began with the notion that Washington can build a wide-ranging partnership — many in India and the world were concerned about the dangers of a US–China condominium — to address the problems of Asia and the world. Barely two years later, the Obama administration began talking about a diplomatic and military “pivot” in Asia to balance the growing assertiveness of a rising China. Obama has been urging Delhi to take on larger responsibilities in promoting a stable balance of power in Asia.

Obama also quickly dispelled India’s doubts about his commitment to the historic civil nuclear initiative negotiated under Bush. He not only pushed through its implementation, but went a step beyond to support India’s integration into various multilateral non-proliferation export control groupings like the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

While issues relating to India’s international access to enrichment and reprocessing technologies and the problems associated with India’s nuclear liability law remain to be sorted out, Delhi’s standing in the international nuclear order continues to rise. Obama also supported India’s candidature for the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.

Beyond his contribution to the bilateral partnership, Obama’s attempt to reset relations with Russia, a task that remains unfinished and is likely to be taken up in the second term, will enhance India’s ability to manage the changing dynamic among the great powers.

Although he has not been entirely successful, Obama has tried to end American adventurism in the Middle East, thereby reducing the traditional friction between Washington and Delhi in this very sensitive region.

Obama, who began his first term by offering a hand of friendship to Iran, has presided over sharpening tensions between Washington and Tehran on the nuclear issue that has created some difficulties for Delhi. To his credit, Obama has shown some understanding of India’s interest in a sustained engagement with Iran. If the reports that Obama is likely to launch a fresh bid for direct dialogue with Tehran turn out to be true, Iran’s negative salience in India-US ties could begin to ease a bit.

Despite the positive dynamic in India–US relations under Obama, there is no denying that UPA 2 has failed to take full advantage. In his first term, despite the hostility from the Left, the PM made bold moves towards the US. In his second term, Manmohan Singh has not been able to demonstrate the same political enthusiasm.

Sections of the ruling Congress party and senior members of the cabinet signal self-doubt and have often resorted to default posturing of the past. The BJP, which initiated the bold outreach to the US in the late 1990s, has been opportunistic in opposing various moves of the UPA government to strengthen cooperation with Washington.

Meanwhile, the solid bipartisan American consensus in favour of deepening ties with India is being undermined by increasing bureaucratic frustration at the daily difficulties of engaging the Indian system. Some in Washington are beginning to ask if the current energies being devoted to India are worth the time and effort.

As the political clock begins to run out on India's United Progressive Alliance government, it has barely a year to make something out of Obama’s second term. Obama will be at the peak of his power in 2013, and this is a moment for Delhi to think big again about the bilateral partnership with the US. Unlike in the past, when the US severely constrained Delhi’s strategic space in the regions to the west and east of India, Obama’s Af-Pak and East Asian policies have opened extraordinary geopolitical opportunities for India.

It is up to Delhi now to get its act together and build irreversible momentum behind the India–US partnership in Obama’s second term.

This post was originally published at The Indian Express

28 November 2012