India has become one of America’s stronger allies over the past two decades. After 9/11, India was actually the first country to confirm their solidarity with America. From a country that was the leader of the non-aligned nations during the Cold War (but always had greater affinity for the Soviet Union), India has become one of the leading emergent economic and political superpowers. As the two of the largest democracies in the world, their alliance should be a natural meeting of the minds. With China’s ever growing military threat in the region, North Korea and Iran always a nuisance, and Pakistan and Afghanistan burning on the other border, close alliances with countries like India will be essential to keep global stability.
Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush fostered the notion of closer Indo-American ties. Politically, economically, and militarily, the countries have moved closer together. And although many Americans and Indians probably don’t realize this, George Bush was probably the most pro-Indian western leader in history. Bush may be despised in many places around the world, but has relatively favorable ratings in India. In fact, some Indian politicians have argued that Bush should receive the Bharat Ratna (“Jewel of India”), which is India’s highest civilian award. The Bharat Ratna is a very prestigious award in India; it has been awarded only 41 times since its inception in 1954–and only twice to non-Indians, one of whom was the sainted Nelson Mandela. Between growing the bond of the IT industry to the U.S., as well as supporting greater Indian involvement in world affairs, to the India Nuclear Deal which basically accepted India as a nuclear power, and ultimately the bilateral support of the two countries on the war on terror, Bush was a strong proponent of a powerful India.
Where Barack Obama takes this relationship is basically an unknown. For example, Obama was lukewarm to the Nuclear deal. In fact, he proposed an amendment that was considered a death-knell for the proposal. Obama has stated that he would push for the U.S. ratification and global entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. This issue, more than any other, divided the United States and India in the 1990s, especially when the United States and China — which had helped sponsor Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs targeting India — ganged up on India at the United Nations to press it to accept the test ban. Obama has proposed selecting a special envoy (Bill Clinton’s name has come up) to negotiate a deal in Kashmir…something that India steadfastly opposes. And when Richard Holbrooke was named Obama’s South Asia envoy, India politicians put a full court press to ensure that Holbrooke’s authority stopped at the Indo-Pakistani border. India and Pakistan have made steady progress in their relationship with Kashmir, although the Mumbai terrorist attacks certainly slowed progress. But India certainly does not want a intermediary from the United States, whether from President Obama or whom ever else, getting in the way.
And if all that is not enough, Manmohan Singh was not in the first group of foreign leaders to receive a phone call from the newly inaugurated President…while Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Chinese President Hu Jintao, among others, did. And then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also is adored in India, decided to go to the Far East, but avoided a stop in New Delhi, a slight that was felt in the subcontinent. Over the past two months, Obama and his cohorts have made visits or major meetings with China, Japan, England, Germany, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Turkey…I think you get my drift. While Hillary is ‘resetting’ the friendship with Russia, starting talks with Syria and possibly North Korea, and even sitting down with Iran…India seems somewhat out of the loop.
And don’t think the Indian government hasn’t noticed. Sure, maybe it is partially insecurity; but the reality is also that talk is meaningless, and actions speak louder than words. So Obama’s relationship with India has gotten off to a rocky start. That said, he is immensely popular in India, like much of the world. But that popularity comes more from symbolism than substance. Having a ‘non-white’ as leader of the powerful country in the world has global resonance.
But India in many ways is unique. They are a very large, fast growing, but still poor country. So they have diverging interests to open up trade, while still protecting their more basic industries like agriculture. They have a terrorist threat, largely from the repercussions of Kashmir. They are bordered by two nuclear powers. And although they have close links to the U.S., no one would call America their natural ally.
So, it takes a little more effort from an American President to show solidarity with India than with other countries. So far, Obama has failed in that task. Part of is the mistrust in the Indian establishment of the current Democratic Party; they knew where Bush and the Republicans stood on their relationship with India, but Democrats have been much more problematic, speaking out against the Nuclear deal, outsourcing, and India’s invovlement in Kashmir. Militarily, the links between the U.S. and India are steadily growing, both with military purchasing and bilateral cooperation among military personnel. These may be essential for future threats, not only in the region but worldwide. India’s role may grow even larger as Pakistan continues to fail to live up to its side in the bargain in the War on Terror.
But there is a larger question: How much does President Obama really value the relationship with India? Obama has yet to make India the priority that China, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea, and others have been. For the short term it is o.k. But some of the President’s statements on India, Pakistan, Kashmir, and the larger region show a lack of understanding of the delicate politics of the subcontinent. Mr. Obama must narrow that intelligence deficit, in reality and in rhetoric, or risk losing the close partnership with India that has been built over the past two decades.