A Transformative Moment in Indo-US Ties?

Recent bilateral diplomacy between the United States and India is indicative of a long-term convergence.

Harsh V. Pant
A Transformative Moment in Indo-US Ties?
Credit: Flickr/ MEAphotogallery

Just a year back, the world’s largest and oldest democracies seemed on a collision course over the Khobragade affair. Today, thanks to deft diplomacy by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team, Washington and Delhi stand on the cusp of a potentially transformative moment in their bilateral ties. When Modi visited the U.S. in September, his domestic critics wanted to discredit him by asking where the substance was. They argued that Modi’s visit was about style; that the optics overpowered the real issues that were bedeviling the relationship. When Modi invited Obama as the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations in Delhi, the critics came back arguing that there was little point to inviting Obama, who had become a lame-duck president with the defeat of the Democrats in November 2014 elections.

But what Modi and Obama have been able to accomplish in the last two days underscores once again how far ahead Modi is of his critics. It also shows the remarkable ability of Modi to understand how modern day politics and diplomacy work. The optics of his visit to the U.S. last September was precisely what convinced Washington about Modi’s ability to deliver. The Obama administration recognized that after years of disappointment from Manmohan Singh, they were now getting an interlocutor in Modi who understood how important it was get the U.S.-India equation right — and he was ready to deliver with his immense cache of political capital. So even though Obama’s foreign policy agenda has been crowded, he has managed to galvanize the American bureaucracy to give one more chance to India before the end of his term. And that bet seems to be paying off.

What is equally important is how the anti-Americanism of the Indian political class is also now a thing of the past. Even when the NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee was trying to structure a partnership with the U.S. and the UPA under Manmohan Singh was trying to take that forward, the anti-western hypocrisy of the Indian establishment was jarringly evident. The BJP’s old guard led the charge to make the passage of the civil nuclear deal difficult and then worked to bring in a liability law that did so much damage to Indian interests. The Indian Left, Right and Center all colluded in this charade. Washington was needed when it came to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China but swords would be out if any Indian leader dared to make a case that a strong partnership was in the interest of India. All in the name of good old-fashioned non-alignment! Manmohan Singh’s efforts to operationalize the nuclear deal were scuttled by his own party more than by the opposition.

Modi has put an end to that nonsense. His bear hug to Obama is a reflection of the reality that only a minority in India have been able to time and again articulate: there are no real substantive issues dividing the two countries. For sure, there are differences but they are on tactics. And it is this realization that made Modi and Obama take the plunge and sort out issues, ranging from the nuclear deal to defense cooperation. The nuclear deal had been held up for six years amid concerns over the liability for any nuclear accident. With Obama using his executive powers to roll back the condition that U.S. authorities be allowed to monitor use of nuclear material purchased by India even from third countries and the U.S. agreeing to India’s proposal to build a risk-management insurance pool of Rs 1,500 crore (approximately $24 million) to provide cover to suppliers who shunned the civil nuclear agreement because it made them liable to pay compensation in the event of a nuclear accident, a great leap forward has been made.

Bilateral defense cooperation has also been energized with the two states agreeing to extend the Defense Cooperation Agreement and identifying four projects under the Defense Technology Trade Initiative (DTTI) for joint production and development as well as exploring cooperation for jet engines and aircraft carrier systems. There is an attempt now to make the DTTI more operational so that it becomes result-oriented. So far, since its institutionalization in 2012, no major projects had emerged; now certain projects have been clearly outlined on which work will begin. This is a major step forward and also very ambitious with the talk of working groups on aircraft carrier and jet engine technologies.

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Where the two leaders are now looking at the U.S.-India relationship through the prism of the strategic changes in the larger Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region, what has been striking is how marginal Pakistan has become in the relationship. The P-word was not mentioned even once in the joint press conference of Modi and Obama. In their joint statement the two leaders reiterated their call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai to justice even as they reaffirmed the need for joint and concerted efforts to disrupt  entities such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D Company, and the Haqqani Network.

There is much to look forward to as Indo-U.S. relations move to another level now. A confident new India is shedding the diffidence of the past in its dealings with America. And that can only be a good thing for the two nations.