It would be unwise to expect too much from President Obama’s coming visit to India. Indians were delighted when Obama became the first black President of the US. Yet, we are now obliged to be more sober.
Indians instinctively tend to prefer US Democrats to Republicans. But Republican Presidents have generally been better for India than Democratic ones. Democratic Presidents have generally been far tougher on India with regard to nuclear issues and Kashmir, and far more protectionist in economic relations.
President Clinton charmed many during his visit to India. But what did he actually do for India? Very little. On coming to power his “cap, roll back, eliminate” formula asked India to cap its nuclear arms, then roll them back, and eventually eliminate them, giving the Big Five a nuclear arms monopoly. He thwarted India from getting cryogenic technology from Russia for its missile programme. When India conducted nuclear tests in 1998, Clinton imposed economic sanctions.
To Clinton’s credit, he pressured Nawaz Sharif to withdraw Pakistani forces and end the Kargil War of 1999. But this was because he wanted to avert nuclear war, not because he was pro-India or anti-Pakistan. Indeed his foreign policy tended to equate India and Pakistan. He did no more than slap Pakistan on the wrist for aiding terrorism in Kashmir. He was willing to collaborate with the Taliban on building a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan.
Radical change came with the Presidency of George W. Bush and the cataclysmic events of 9/11. For the first time the US saw Islamic terrorism in the subcontinent as a threat not just to India but also to the US and the whole world. Pakistan was forced at gunpoint to collaborate with the US in Afghanistan, and reduce assistance to militants in Kashmir.
Coincidentally, India’s IT industry rose meteorically. Major powers, including China, stopped regarding India as a chaotic, poor country begging for aid, and instead acknowledged it as a rising economic power. Soon, Indian GDP accelerated to over 9%, and it became a global R&D hub and major exporter of brain-intensive manufactures (autos, pharmaceuticals).
President Bush was quick to spot the strategic implications. He saw that India had the potential to become a major economic power, along with democratic values and a common interest with the US in combating Islamic terrorism. Further, he could see that China would within three decades become a mighty economic and military power, throwing its weight around in Asia. He visualised India as a strategic counter to China. And so he went for a radical transformation of India-US relations.
He abandoned the decades-old US policy of hyphenating India and Pakistan in foreign affairs, and forcing India to sign the NPT. Instead, to the dismay of powerful lobbies in the US, he expended a huge amount of political capital—at a time of diminishing popularity—to pushing through exemption for India from US laws on non-proliferation, and persuading the Nuclear Suppliers Group to sell nuclear equipment to India even though it was not a signatory to NPT. This was justified by the Bush vision that India needed to be cultivated as a long-range strategic partner of unrivalled importance in the Asian region.
However, after the election of President Obama, that strategic vision has clearly been diminished in relevance. Obama has two urgent shortterm problems—restoring the flagging US economy and exiting from Afghanistan without losing face. The economic issue has entailed closer engagement with China, and the Afghan imbroglio has entailed compromises with Pakistan, Karzai and potentially even the Taliban.
China and Pakistan loom far larger on Obama’s radar screen than India. He has taken care to say periodically that he prizes good relations with New Delhi. But in his quest for economic recovery, he has bashed US corporations that outsource jobs to places like India, has forbidden companies getting government rescue funds from outsourcing, and has now enacted higher visa fees for visiting IT professionals which seem designed to hit Indian companies quite specifically.
Earlier this year, a report of General McChrystal, US military commander in Afghanistan, stated that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter-measures”. Formally, the US continues to support an Indian presence in Afghanistan. Yet it obviously regards Pakistan as a far more important player than India, and so tries to placate Pakistan despite the latter’s well-known double-game. Indeed we have ominous signs that the US has reconciled itself to the inevitability of the Taliban coming back in some form, exactly as Pakistan wants.
During his visit to India, Obama will doubtless say several encouraging things. He will hail India as a coming superpower, and say that it is a good idea for India to become a member of the UN Security Council. He will declare that Islamic terrorism must end in Kashmir and Afghanistan. He will hail India’s democratic values.
He will talk of easing some US export controls on dual-use technology and equipment. He will talk of increased cooperation in fields like energy, education agriculture and so on. This is fine as far as it goes, but cannot obscure the diminution of India on the US radar screen. It is not that Obama has abandoned the long-term strategic interest in India that Bush initiated. Rather, Obama is focusing on urgent short-term issues and not on the strategic long-term.
This will not impact the booming Indo-US economic partnership. This has boomed for four decades thanks to corporate decisions, not government decisions. Besides, individual Indians have flocked to the US for studies and citizenship in huge numbers. They have won several Nobel Prizes, helped create Silicon Valley, and are now prominent in every political and economic field.
Being driven by individuals and corporations, this aspect of the relationship will strengthen regardless of Obama’s current concerns. It will stand both countries in good stead when, in due course, the relationship truly assumes strategic importance.