Can Obama make his India visit substantive? – OpEd


The first leg of United States President Barack Obama’s India visit (November 6-9) in Mumbai demonstrated the American priorities. The Americans sewed up US exports deals totaling $ 10 billion that would generate 50,000 jobs in the US. Obama himself minced no words when he said in his speech at the US-India Business and Entrepreneurship Summit in India’s commercial capital on November 6 that “For America this is a jobs’ fair”. He also said that the US was looking at India for bolstering the strained economy back home. He rued the fact that the Indo-US bilateral trade was less than the American trade with Netherlands, a country smaller than Mumbai.

On November 7, while interacting with 300-odd students of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s college, Obama’s foreign policy was brought into focus by a couple of searching questions from the students who sought his views on the Afghanistan conundrum and why the US was desisting from declaring Pakistan a terrorist state. He described Pakistan as “an enormous country” (whatever he meant by it!) and said that Pakistan was a strategically important country not only for the US but for the entire world.

This is neither fish nor fowl, Mr. President. Obviously Obama has decided not to be harsh on Pakistan during his India tour – a far cry from an overly blunt British Prime Minister David Cameron who during his India visit in July 2010 had said that elements of the Pakistani state were responsible for exporting terrorism abroad. The Obamaspeak on Pakistan in Mumbai is a signal of his soft approach towards Pakistan during the rest of his India tour. Obama is obviously cautious of the fact that he is breaking from the age-old US tradition wherein the American Presidents have visited Pakistan immediately after winding up their India visit. Pakistan does not figure in Obama’s four-nation Asian tour itinerary. His engagement with the top Indian leadership in New Delhi and his address of the joint session of Parliament on November 8 will prove this.

Obama is not going to be a Santa Claus for India. His Indian odyssey will not be able to match the highly substantive India visit by his predecessor George W Bush in March 2006. Straws in the wind suggest that neither side should expect the moon from the November 8 summit talks between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi’s Hyderabad House – a grand palace built by the famous architect Edwin Lutyens in 1926 for Osman Ali Khan, Nizam VII, the last Nizam of Hyderabad.

A politically bruised and much weakened Obama landed in Mumbai on November 6, days after the drubbing his Democratic party got at the hands of arch-rivals in the November 2 elections for the bicameral Congress – the 435 member House of Representatives (all of which were up for grabs) and the 100-member Senate (where 37 seats underwent elections). Yes, he can take cheer from the fact that the mid-term election results may actually brighten his chances for the 2012 Presidential elections as Democrats are known to have done. Bill Clinton pulled off such a feat in 1996.

For India the glass seemed half full in the November 2 US elections. Nikki Haley, an Indian American and daughter of Sikh immigrant parents from Amritsar, became the first woman to win the governor’s race in South Carolina. Haley’s achievement looks even brighter considering the fact that all six other Indian-Americans, who contested from Democratic and Republican tickets, lost. In contrast, the Afro American community will be unrepresented in the Congress as all its three candidates lost.
Coming back to the Obama visit to India, sticking issues still remain unresolved. The Obama administration has been egging on New Delhi to sign three security cooperation agreements — the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), the Communication Interoperability and Security Agreement (CISMOA), and the Basic Change and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA). India is unlikely to oblige President Obama on any of the three.

The Indians too have a fairly long wish list: (i) removal of India’s major defence and research institutions from the American export control list which has debarred Indian companies from trade in US advanced technology since India’s 1998 nuclear test; (ii) a roll back of a recent American legislation that has increased fees for the H-1B and L-1 visas by $2,000 and $2,250 respectively for companies with 50 or more employees in the U.S. — if more than half of the company’s employees are on H-1B or L-1 visas; and (iii) an unambiguous declaration of America’s support for a permanent seat on the to-be-reformed United Nations Security Council.

Obama is likely to deliver on the first of these three points. On the other two he is expected to remain unflinching. Instead, the Obama administration wants India to dilute its Nuclear Liability Bill – a demand that will surely be rejected by the Indian government. Obama will also be lobbying on behalf of the American defence industry and would want India to award massive defence deals worth over $ 15 billion to American companies. The $ 11 billion order that India will shortly place for 126 Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) and the Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA) deal may not be awarded to America because India has better offers from other countries like Russia and Sweden.

True, Obama has made some positive gestures. The very fact that he is visiting India during his first tenure is in itself a positive diplomatic symbolism. American Presidents are not known to come calling to India during their first tenures. Obama also granted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the honour of hosting the first ever state dinner of his tenure for him in November 2009. India and the US held their first ever strategic dialogue in Washington in June this year, symbolizing a sort of diplomatic parity for India with China. At the strategic dialogue, Undersecretary of State William Burns went on record saying that the US government was ‘deeply committed to supporting India’s rise and to building the strongest possible partnership between us.’ (However, the Indo-US strategic dialogue took place days after the US-Pakistan dialogue, conveying that Washington continues to hyphenate India and Pakistan.) In the same speech Burns moved the US closer than ever before towards openly supporting a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council for India.

Despite these gestures, Obama’s India glass is half-empty as of now and it will require lot of grit on his part to make this visit transformational, rather than rhetorical. Straws in the wind suggest that the Obama administration is indeed trying its best to ensure that a couple of “big-ticket” bilateral agreements are signed during the visit.

Obama has come to India with a baggage of miffed chances to deepen relations with Asia’s third largest economy. Obama started his Presidency with a whale of a chance to take bilateral relations with India to a new high. He had inherited a solid legacy from his Republican predecessor George W Bush who doggedly navigated the US-India relations with a historic civilian nuclear cooperation agreement with the prime strategic objective of bringing the world’s most powerful democracy with the world’s largest democracy on the same page to develop an effective counter to a rising China in none too distant future.

But nearly two years later, there are more red lines than the green ones in the US-India relations graph. Obama’s please-all approach in his Asian diplomacy will likely displease major actors in the region: China, Japan, India and Pakistan. His China policy is a case in point. The Obama administration’s newest idea of coordinating its South Asia policy with China is a red rag to India. The Indian government finds it absolutely unacceptable to give any monitoring role to any power, least of all to China which has been increasing its sweepstakes in South Asia as well the Indian Ocean region, though China is neither a South Asian power nor an Indian Ocean country.

In the second week of October, Obama signaled his intent to lift arms embargo on China, in place since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing. Obama invoked the American “national interest” when he wrote to the two Houses of the Congress on October 8, beseeching the Congress to lift the ban on the sale of C-130 cargo aircraft to China. Obama’s letter to the Congress has come on the heels of resumption of military-to-military ties between the US and China.

Obama’s track record has hardly been inspiring for New Delhi which has been eyeing him with apprehension and suspicion even before he emerged as Democrat party’s Presidential candidate. Way back in 2006 when he was a junior Senator from Illinois, he sought to bolster his domestic support with the influential non-proliferation lobby when he moved two amendments to the Indo-US nuclear deal. The amendments were aimed at limiting India’s access to nuclear fuel supplies.
His first major goof-up after becoming President in 2008 came when he floated a dangerous trial balloon that angered New Delhi no end. He nearly appointed former President Bill Clinton as his Special Envoy to arbitrate the Kashmir dispute. The Indian diplomatic establishment went into an overdrive and finally managed to ensure that when finally the Obama administration did appoint a Special Envoy on Af-Pak region – Richard Holbrooke – he did not have any mandate to mediate on Kashmir.

Shortly later, Obama’s US was on a different page with India on contentious issues like climate change, global warming, WTO, UN Security Council reforms, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), outsourcing and visa rows. More pinpricks for India followed, this time on foreign policy.

Obama’s policies on Pakistan and China – the only external security threats for India – exacerbated the Indo-US differences. India would have had turned a blind eye if Obama were to limit its wooing of Pakistan only to securing Islamabad’s support in the international war against terror. However, India could not have ignored the massive largesse that the Obama administration announced for Pakistan in the name of war against terror. Obama pushed through a $ 7.5 billion civilian aid package, apart from military aid worth billions of dollars, to Pakistan despite Indian objections – and Washington’s own knowledge – that the American civilian aid for Pakistan was routinely diverted to anti-Indian activities and beefing up the Pakistani military capability. This bugged India no end. Democrats have historically favoured Pakistan (Bill Clinton was one exception) while the Republicans have favoured India.

And to rub salt in Indian wounds, Washington sat for months on repeated requests from India for access to David Coleman Headley; a Pakistani-American arrested in October 2009 for involvement in the November 26-29, 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed 173 people. And when the access was finally granted in June 2010, it was limited. In contrast, the US had granted Denmark (a country that was on Headley’s eventually aborted hit list for publication of defamatory Prophet Mohammed cartoons) access to Headley months before.

The Obama administration ticked off India on Afghanistan too. India, which is the most popular country in Afghanistan and has invested $ 1.2 billion in that country in dozens of projects aimed at ameliorating the common Afghan’s lot, was suddenly viewed by the US as a strategic liability. The first straws in the wind came in January 2010 when India was sidelined at the London Conference on Afghanistan. As Washington started playing footsie with the Afghan Taliban, it expected India to vacate the Afghanistan theatre so that Pakistan, the most hated country in Afghanistan, feels more comfortable.

This when it was the American intelligence agencies themselves which had traced the July 2008 bombing of Indian embassy in Kabul in which 58 people were killed to the ISI! America’s Afghanistan policy was made more explicit when the then US Commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal went on record in 2009 saying that ‘increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures.’ Washington seems to be realizing its folly in Afghanistan as is evident from Gen McChrystal’s successor General David Petraeus’ averments. Gen. Petraeus remarked thus during his confirmation hearing on June 29: “India has a legitimate interest in this region without question”.

The US has to sweeten its defence deals for India if it expects India to award multi-billion dollars contracts to American companies. India has diverse options in its trade basket like buying more Airbus planes from Europe, importing more cars from Japan, or moving toward a trade agreement with the European Union that discriminates against American exporters. Defence sector is one very important strategic tool in the hands of India and Obama should not forget this.

India is all set to beef up its defence capabilities in a big way and is looking to import $ 50 billion worth armaments and equipment in the next five years. No wonder then all major arms exporting nations are wooing India. Obama is expected to nudge India to award the $ 11 billion contract for 126 Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) to American companies. There is no guarantee that India will be obliging. On the contrary, India may well bluntly tell Obama that the American companies figure poorly in terms of price and technology transfer and Sweden is far ahead for the MRCA deal as the Swedish terms and conditions are by far the best. Besides, India is none too happy with Obama’s overly protective attitude on the issue of outsourcing.

In contrast, India and Russia have inched closer to sealing the multi-billion dollar fighter, transport aircraft deal. India and Russia have already concluded the Shareholders Agreement for formation of a Joint Venture Company for the development and production of the Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA). They have also agreed to expedite modalities for the proposed project for the joint design, development and production of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). The issue came up for extensive discussion at the tenth meeting of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military Technical Cooperation in New Delhi on October 7 where Indian Defence Minister AK Antony held talks with his visiting Russian counterpart AE Serdyukov. As per this agreement India will receive approximately between 250-300 most modern FGFA.

There is a rising clamour within the Indian armed forces for diversifying their arms and armaments procurement basket. More importantly, India is set to be increasingly assertive in insisting on complete technology transfer and a clause that the same weapons and technology would not be sold to China and Pakistan. The Americans usually baulk at the very idea of technology transfer and that is where other countries, especially Israel, Russia and Sweden, score.

Obama should value democracy which is the single biggest achievement of India since independence 63 years ago. India is a beacon of democracy in the region full of autocratic regimes. The US has been engaged in bitter rivalries with the Soviet Union in the past and China at present. Other non-democracies like North Korea and Myanmar and questionable democracies like Iran and Pakistan have traditionally been bug bears for the US. In contrast, India is a natural partner.

(The author is a knowledgeable journalist with over twenty years of experience. The views expressed are his own.)

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