Obama visit to India: past as reminder for future (Comment)

By C. Uday Bhaskar, IANS
Monday, November 1, 2010

US President Barack Obama embarks on his India ‘yatra’ in Mumbai Nov 6 to leave his impress on a complex, contradictory and asymmetric bilateral relationship between the world’s oldest and largest democracies. Very few of his predecessors at the White House have had cordial ties with their Indian counterparts while others like Richard Nixon could barely conceal their distaste for India. To that extent the Obama-Manmohan Singh personal relationship is of distinctive texture and this is a welcome departure from past experience.

But it is useful to review the past to derive the appropriate cues for the future. The democracy tag notwithstanding, the India-US relationship has been often described as “estranged” - and this is true of the Cold War decades when the two countries were bitterly opposed on a range of issues leading with the long festering nuclear nettle.

Some Americans found the Indians long-winded, hypocritical and holier than thou, while their interlocutors saw the Yanks overbearing and following double standards. Yes, Nixon called prime minister Indira Gandhi names and US secretary of state Henry Kissinger used sneering turn of phrase - which to the everlasting ire of the Indians he chose to share with his Chinese hosts in Beijing.

But to the credit of the leadership on both sides and the stakeholders - both in the government and outside of it who have contributed to nurturing the relationship - the more bleak and turbulent period of the estrangement was preceded by considerable empathy. This was evidenced in the consistent American support to the Indian freedom struggle before August 1947 championed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt much to Winston Churchill’s anger. The US leadership at the time recognised that when the chips were down and freedom was at stake during World War II, as many as 2.5 million Indian troops were fighting for the Allied cause.

In the early decades after India became free, the US provided much needed food aid that averted starvation - a vulnerability that Indira Gandhi swore to redress and successfully did with technological support from the US through the agricultural ‘green revolution’. The 1971 war for Bangladesh saw the US turning a blind eye to genocide for realpolitik considerations and India defied the global consensus that tacitly endorsed the Pakistani military dictatorship. But even the much reviled Nixon finally signed a cheque for US $2.2 billion to settle the PL 480 food aid rupee agreement in India’s favour. In 1974, India conducted a nuclear explosion that it categorised as a PNE - peaceful nuclear explosion - and the US soon introduced legislation that was India-specific and imposed stringent sanctions that ostracised India. The estrangement became final.

A contradictory texture is the leitmotif of the India-US relationship and this has been evident after the empathy-estrangement phase concluded with the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, the nuclear issue came back to strain ties, notwithstanding the early bonhomie that included the US and India co-sponsoring a nuclear test ban treaty at the UN. But this did not alter a core US posture derived from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which India is not signatory to) - that India should not acquire nuclear weapons for its security.

Most Indians found it odd that the US considered nuclear weapons imperative for its own security and that of its allies but did not concede that India had the same right. The fact that China was a nuclear power and that Beijing in May 1990 had covertly provided the same capability to Pakistan - which in turn was using this weapon of mass destruction (WMD) capability as a shield to engage in support to terrorism - was not acknowledged by the White House. Most Indians found this US position to be the equivalent of ‘disarming the unarmed’.

In May 1998, India conducted a nuclear explosion and became a de facto nuclear weapon power. The US was enraged. Washington came down like a ton of bricks on Delhi. However, perpetual petulance cannot be a substitute for policy and a slow process of rapprochement began and by March 2000, President Bill Clinton was given an unprecedented welcome in India.

Sep 11, 2001, jolted the US and terrorism became the new challenge that had to be contained. In 2005, the Bush administration decided it did not make strategic sense for the US to be at loggerheads with the world’s largest democracy which had demonstrated that its diverse religions, ethnicity and cultures could co-exist. A radical squaring of the circle was proposed, Bush visited India in 2006 and, in autumn 2008, India was accorded an exceptional status apropos its nuclear profile.

The cautious engagement began even as the White House baton passed from the Bush to the Obama team. India celebrated the Obama victory and could empathise with a person of colour. But soon the disappointment was palpable. Was the US under Obama moving towards a G-2 that accorded China the responsibility of managing Asia? Was there a go slow by team Obama on the nuclear issue? India itself was not clear as to what it wanted from the US and appeared devious by way of the nuclear legislation its coalition politics allowed.

President Obama himself is now beleaguered with rising unemployment and a sluggish economy. If the mid-term elections go against the Democrats, Obama would be a lame-duck president seeking a successful outcome to his foreign visit. Jobs, jobs, jobs - appears to be the central theme of the India visit. For Delhi the priority is security and strategic issues. The mismatch is more than evident.

To their credit, both Obama and Manmohan Singh have demonstrated a tenacity of purpose and political resolve that is distinctive. Their personal relationship and their combined intellectual prowess are unmatched. The issues that need to be carefully managed are part of the bilateral cross and include the familiar litany of China, Pakistan and terrorism; Iran, UNSC seat et al. For sure, both sides have differences. But the macro issue lies in astutely and objectively comprehending the texture of the 21st century and how best the two democracies can enable each other’s interests.

Hopefully, the festival of lights, Diwali - against the backdrop of which Obama begins his Indian journey - will help to illuminate the pitfalls of the past and the opportunities of the future that can meaningfully punctuate the bilateral relationship.

(01.11.2010 - C. Uday Bhaskar is a well-known strategic analyst and director of the National Maritime Foundation. He can be reached at cudayb@gmail.com)

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