When two successive ambassadors throw in the towel before completion of their tenures, it is obvious that the relationship between their country and the host government is in trouble. With pundits in New Delhi spinning out theories that range from the bizarre to the ridiculous about Nancy Powell’s resignation, it has not registered adequately among the public that she is not the first ambassador of the United States of America to leave New Delhi prematurely in very recent times. Her predecessor, Timothy Roemer, who was chosen amidst great fanfare, because he is a former Democratic Congressman from Indiana, also resigned before the end of his tenure. Roemer was appointed by Barack Obama soon after becoming president for the first time in 2009, when there were hopes that Washington would pursue relations with New Delhi with the same vigour that characterized the George W. Bush administration’s interest in India.
Such an expectation was not entirely misplaced because Obama showed enough interest in India to visit the country within a year. The order of priorities in a first presidential term is weighed with great care in Washington because they determine a president’s re-election. Obviously, Obama concluded then that India would play a role, howsoever small, in getting him a second term in the White House. Such a conclusion had its basis in a sense of entitlement in dealings with India that was pervasive in Washington ever since the Americans helped end India’s long nuclear winter with the nuclear deal crafted in 2005. Roemer paid the price with his resignation when he failed to encash that sense of entitlement and bring new jobs for Americans with a massive order from the Indian Air Force for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) in favour of American companies that had bid for the biggest military aviation deal in history.
He quit the day the ministry of defence decided that the Americans were out of the MMRCA race for the IAF’s modernization. Yet, hopes of thriving Indo-US relations were not belied on account of the Indian decision on fighter planes at that time. Although Roemer took personal responsibility for his country’s failure to bag the lucrative contract, he made it clear that the US was not giving up on its pursuit of economic interests in India, especially its efforts to create more jobs in America out of those interests. His departure statement emphasized this point: “The sale of C130J aircraft and the pending sale of C-17s strengthen the strategic partnership between our two countries and demonstrate our enduring commitment to sharing the world’s best technology with India. Our defence partnership offers economic benefits for both India and the US, and significant job creation in both countries.”
The resignation of a second US ambassador to India in succession, however, ought to make Indians sit up and take a comprehensive look at their relationship with Washington. Roemer’s resignation offered an opportunity for course correction on both sides. That did not happen. Not only did it not happen, worse still, the slide that forced him to quit Roosevelt House — the residence of the American ambassador in the capital’s diplomatic enclave, Chanakyapuri — continued unchecked to a point where Indo-US relations are now in a crisis.
Notwithstanding what Nancy Powell has said in public as the rationale for her decision to leave New Delhi, she had made Roosevelt House her home less than two years ago with the full intention of serving a full term in this country, which she likes and is very familiar with because of her career-graph. She even picked artifacts for her residence with great thought and care. A statue of Eleanor Roosevelt, for example, was one of her choices. Eleanor, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and chairwoman of the presidential commission on the status of women, is someone she looks up to. Today, there is some irony in the choice of that statue because Eleanor Roosevelt was America’s longest serving first lady for 12 years. Powell’s, on the other hand, will be one of the shortest tenures in Roosevelt House in recent times. As someone familiar with the embassy residence in Chanakyapuri, Powell knew exactly where she would place that statue well before she arrived in New Delhi. She said so to a small group of people in Washington, including this columnist, a few days after her confirmation by the Senate in March, 2012. No one takes such care with preparations on a diplomatic posting unless they intend to enjoy the posting and serve a full term.
The blame for the state of affairs in Indo-US relations, which has been brought to its current low phase, lies on both sides. No more than a handful of Indians have had any sound ideas on what India wants from the relationship with the US. When the Soviet Union broke up and P.V. Narasimha Rao began gingerly reaching out to the Americans, many Indians believed that they could simply replace Moscow with Washington and carry on as if nothing else had changed. Indians are not alone in pursuing such a mistakenly innocent approach to diplomacy. Many former satellite states of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in eastern Europe assumed the same and put the US on the same pedestal occupied by the Soviets between the end of World War II and the collapse of the USSR. They have paid a big price for that mistake not only in terms of statecraft but also by yardsticks of national pride and honour.
Last year, when some senior political figures from Australia met an Indian member of Parliament, the latter told the visitors that India does not have to bother with Australia. “When we want something, we tell the Americans and they do it for us,” the MP said to suppressed derision from his interlocutors. These visitors knew only too well that if such an approach does not work for Australia, a staunch US ally, it cannot do so with India.
Speculation that Rajiv Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, Washington’s arm for overseas aid, would be sent to succeed Powell is another example of simplistic pitfalls in New Delhi on relations with Washington. In the first place, Shah’s current job is a cabinet-level post. Cabinet members have, in the past, been pulled out and sent as ambassadors, but that has been to China, for example.
India is not China — at least, not yet. If Shah is, indeed, sent to Chanakyapuri, that will be a signal that Obama has grown a big stake in India. Even then, the choice will fall on Shah not because he is of Gujarati descent and Narendra Modi happens to be a Gujarati as well. That is not how US diplomacy operates: if that had been the case, America’s foreign policy would only have been in the same class as that of the United Arab Emirates or Kuwait, where such considerations determine overseas postings.
Several years ago, by chance, the head of a huge US multinational ran into me at a reception in St Louis, Missouri. When he found out that I am an Indian journalist, he buttonholed me because his conglomerate was bidding for a big Indian contract and he asked me how long it would be before the deal was his. I told him that it would take five years, but also that the US was not likely to bag the order. He dismissed my answer, adding that everything had been tied up and would be delivered to him in six months. Three years later, we were in the same room in New York, but I did not recognize him. He did. He was gracious enough to tell me that I was right. He was still chasing the contract that he thought would be his much earlier. I had told him what I did, not because I had any inside information, but because that is not how India works.
Most Americans who venture into India either for a slice of the economic cake or for strategic gains are ignorant of its uniquely ‘Hindu’ style of functioning, for want of a better description. And lately, they have been ill-served by the recruitment of former civil servants who often tell the Americans what they want to hear. Timothy Roemer and Nancy Powell paid a price for this, and Indo-US relations have suffered on that account.