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Admission of trouble in India-US marriage
- For the first time, both acknowledge differences but accept the need to work on them

New Delhi, July 31: India and America today officially acknowledged for the first time that seemingly intractable differences across the economic and geopolitical spectrum had potholed their strategic partnership, accepting they needed “specific” breakthroughs to make Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s September trip to Washington truly worthwhile.

US secretary of state John Kerry said both nations needed to “do a lot of homework as we leave today’s meeting”, after daylong talks with India’s foreign, finance, defence and commerce ministers.

The rare public admission of seeping bitterness in a relationship New Delhi and Washington have so far sugar-coated for official consumption, even as they argued on multiple disputes, came minutes after external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj acknowledged that the nations “diverge” on key issues.

Both admissions were made unprompted, as a part of their prepared statements, by Kerry and Sushma as they fronted up for a press interaction after their talks — signalling public recognition of a crisis simmering for over a year that neither nation officially accepted till now.

“It’s like a celebrity couple whose troubles have been written about finally coming out in the open and accepting their marriage is in trouble,” an official said. “But acknowledging a problem and being comfortable accepting it is a crucial first step towards seriously addressing it.”

Over the past two years, differences ranging from India’s nuclear liability law and intellectual property regime to an American immigration bill targeting Indian IT firms and the arrest of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade have hit ties. Each dispute was portrayed by Indian and US officials as isolated, and with limited impact on the broader bilateral relationship.

But a failure to resolve these disputes in a manner satisfactory to both, fresh differences and geopolitical tensions where India and the US stand on opposite sides appear to have coalesced to prompt the nations to look at their ability to talk of their disputes as a takeaway in itself.

“We also recognise that the maturity of our strategic relationship has given both sides the capacity to treat issues where we diverge as an opportunity for further conversation and dialogue,” Sushma said in her statement.

Those “issues”, Kerry and Sushma later publicly acknowledged in response to questions, cut across too many sectors to be couched in traditional sweet talk of “natural” ties between “the world’s largest democracy and the world’s oldest democracy”.

“The words are easy — it’s the action that follows those words that really matters,” Kerry said. “After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

Kerry articulated US concerns on India’s refusal to sign a key World Trade Organisation pact when he met finance and defence minister Arun Jaitley. US defence secretary Chuck Hagel, who is visiting India on August 8, will also meet Jaitley. US commerce secretary Penny Pritzker, who is accompanying Kerry, also met commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman and reiterated American worries over the WTO disagreement.

“Our feeling is obviously that the agreement that was reached in Bali will take care of India’s food security concerns,” Kerry said. But Sitharaman told reporters after the meeting that India’s stand remained unchanged.

With India refusing to concede on its WTO position, Kerry made a statement at a television interview that only left New Delhi more determined. “If India doesn’t sign the agreement, it will risk standing in violation of WTO rules,” Kerry told the television channelat the interview early this afternoon, following his meeting with Jaitley.

The statement confirmed suspicions in New Delhi that the US and its developed-world allies were thinking of ignoring India’s concerns and inking the WTO pact specifically excluding India.

Kerry’s interview with the television channel further breached protocol when it delayed the start of the strategic dialogue with Sushma, which was scheduled to begin at 3pm. When the talks began, Kerry broke the conversation on multiple occasions to answer calls from his negotiators trying to stitch together a peace deal between the Hamas and Israel to end the war in Gaza. It is unusual — except in absolute emergencies — for officials to break talks to receive calls.

In their talks, Sushma told Kerry India was “angry” over reports that the US had spied on the Indian embassy in the US and on the BJP, calling the snooping “unacceptable”.

“Absolutely,” Sushma said, in response to a question on whether she had articulated Indian concerns over the alleged snooping by the US National Security Agency. “I told him people in India were very angry when reports of the NSA surveillance surfaced. India and the US are friends. That one nation spies on a friend nation is completely unacceptable.”

Her stance represents a sharp contrast from the position her predecessor under the UPA, Salman Khurshid, had taken when the snooping revelations first emerged last summer.

Then sitting beside Kerry at the last India-US strategic dialogue, Khurshid was asked whether he had taken up the “snooping issue” with his American counterpart.

“I think saying have you raised it with Secretary Kerry might not be the correct way of looking at it,” Khurshid had responded, almost apologetically. “This is an area that we are both interested in and we discussed it.” Bilateral trade too, Kerry accepted today, remained an area pockmarked with differences.

Sushma told Kerry India was unwilling to review its nuclear liability law, opposed by US companies as too loaded against suppliers of nuclear equipment. “We still have a lot to do to reduce our differences on trade barriers, tariffs and price-control mechanisms,” Kerry said. “We’ve got to acknowledge we’ve had a few ups and downs.”

The Indian foreign minister also publicly said New Delhi would view a proposed US immigration bill that targets Indian IT firms as a “negative signal”.

“I told Secretary Kerry that we are not against the bill per se. It is their domestic matter,” Sushma said. “But we are very concerned about the adverse impact of the bill on the Indian IT sector, and we think it will send a very wrong signal at a time India is opening up its economy for foreign participation.”

Asked about India’s opposition to US sanctions against Russia for its alleged interference in Ukraine, Kerry accepted that Washington would “like India to support us on this (sanctions against Russia)”, but said the US understood “that this is India’s decision to make”.

Sushma was curt in her response, asserting that India’s position against the sanctions was not flexible.

Modi, who is scheduled to visit Washington on September 30 for talks with President Barack Obama, has repeatedly told his officials he wants his overseas trips to be “result-oriented”.

Today, Sushma and Kerry both accepted they were some distance from delivering results by the time Modi visits Washington.

“While I am pleased with our efforts today, to be truly satisfied, we must build on these efforts to deliver the best possible results from the Prime Minister’s visit,” Sushma said.

Kerry was more forthright.

“As I told the minister, we clearly have a lot of homework to do coming out of the meeting,” Kerry said. “We have a lot to do to put some specifics on the table by the time Prime Minister Modi and President Obama meet.”