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A USEFUL ARBITER

- India-US relations are desperately in need of ownership

“America has its own significance,” argued Sushma Swaraj, the new Indian external affairs minister. The first woman to have independent charge of this portfolio, her brief remark was made on her first day in office. From the outset, it would seem as though all was well in India’s dealing with the United States of America. To be sure, her counterpart — the US secretary of state John Kerry — was the first international diplomat to congratulate the minister. Yet, insiders suggest that there is something left to be desired in a relationship that requires urgent political attention. The Modi government’s focus on the neighbourhood and East Asia — and specifically Japan — concerns those who realize the importance of America. What is needed, it could be argued, is ownership. Owning a relationship places a certain undeniable burden on diplomatic actors and representatives more inclined, but less able, to take one another for granted. An especially potent point, given that Narendra Modi was banned from entering the US.

There is a crucial need for those in the White House and the newly staffed Prime Minister’s Office to take a longer view of a relationship forged over a period of 65 years. Both countries have spent more than six decades building what might be called diplomatic resilience, largely overcoming narrower bureaucratic scepticism and even cynicism. Some light examples of how such resilience took root are worth recollecting — for instance, President Roosevelt made allowances for Indian leaders, like Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, to visit the US even though their passports were confiscated by British authorities. For Nehru, Washington was the most important diplomatic post. Asaf Ali was appointed as India’s first envoy a few months prior to Independence. Even Dwight Eisenhower, who once referred to Indians as “funny people”, was later forced to admit that India was a country that America “could work with”. Indira Gandhi, let down by Richard Nixon in 1971, was quick to realize the virtue of better relations with America a year later. Her envoy to the US, T.N. Kaul, was tasked with fixing the relationship.

Manmohan Singh spent the last decade further strengthening such resilience on an equal footing. He took ownership over a process that led to the completion of a landmark civil nuclear agreement with the US in 2008. While the agreement itself remains a matter of legislative dispute in the Indian parliament, it has allowed 40-odd members of the so-called Nuclear Suppliers Group to export much-needed nuclear material to India. This option simply did not exist following the Indian nuclear tests in 1974. Unlike in the late 1990s, when the BJP-led coalition came to power, arguments on and around what Jaswant Singh once called “nuclear apartheid” no longer dog India’s advance.

In the present time, and matters to do with Modi’s visa ban aside, both incumbents are well placed to take advantage of history and the determination offered by their respective predecessors. This will not be easy. While the PMO may struggle to see virtue in taking any major diplomatic step, the White House seems more and more interested in shifting its focus away from South Asia to East Asia and North Africa. Obama’s foreign policy speech on May 28 suggests the same. Importantly, India was mentioned once — as a nation whose “rising middle classes” competed with those in America. Further, the somewhat irresponsible and short-sighted decision to reduce America’s military commitments in Afghanistan to a couple of thousand troops by 2016 will have a deterministic impact on India. This, coupled with an impending trade war around patents and intellectual property, India is one of ten nations on the US Trade Representatives 2014 “priority watch list”, will require delicate diplomacy.

As far as the Obama administration is concerned, the desperate need for symbolic gestures cannot be overstated. Three out of four previous Indian National Security Advisors — Brajesh Misra, J. N. Dixit and Shiv Shankar Menon — hardly needed convincing about the merits of engagement with the US. For those allegedly less persuaded about the same — like M.K. Narayanan, special envoys, and forward-looking foreign secretaries were able to step-in. Of course, the former prime minister was himself invested. The Modi PMO is likely to be a lot more centralized than before. To be clear, many of the prime minister’s foreign policy advisors and well-wishers appear cautious about dealing with the US. Breaking this logjam will require something more than offers to renegotiate rankings in the USTR list — a possibility left open by way of an out-of-cycle review scheduled this Fall.

It will require appointing a permanent US ambassador who is personally invested in the idea and notion for improvement. Figures like this are not easy to identify even in history. A clue could be found in the published diaries of Chester Bowles, and perhaps even in John Kenneth Galbraith. Both ambassadors chose to serve in India under the Truman and Kennedy administrations respectively. Indeed, if they were able to sway elite opinion at a time when anti-imperialism remained the convenient and well-entrenched rallying cry for some within India, there is nothing to suggest that a figure of similar determination — even if not stature — can invite enthusiasm in a relationship desperately in need of ownership.

Equally, and with regards to India, it is imperative not to forget the more recent past, marred by successive crises. In the Kargil War of 1999, President Clinton’s intervention and discussions with Nawaz Sharif shaped the way in which hostilities ended. In 2002, following the terrorist attacks on the Indian parliament, the efforts of the Bush administration helped deny the potential for war. America serves as a useful arbiter in times of crisis. This certainly does not mean that India should adhere to American demands. In fact, past cases suggest that this is more unlikely than commonly assumed. While both Sharif and Modi appear convinced about better India-Pakistan ties, the potential for crises remains high. Hence, it is prudent diplomacy to keep all available channels for negotiation open. To this end, and given the limited spirit for America at the present time, it would be opportune to appoint a principal to remain in quiet contact with counterparts in the US. As history shows us, envoys and interlocutors can do a lot more for vision, inspiration and material support than those adhering to the strict confines of bureaucratic politics.