Indo-US ties: Hopes and possibilities

By: Saudi Gazette – Editorial

During the Cold War years when India was understood to be in Soviet camp, there was much distrust, if not open hostility, between New Delhi and Washington. It was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) prime minister (1998 to 2004), who declared India and America “natural allies” after decades of alienation and opened the door to defense cooperation between the two. BJP has always been sympathetic to the US and Israel unlike the Congress and leftist parties.

Naturally, hopes have risen of a new beginning in Indo-US relations after the Hindu nationalist party came to power on its own for the first time in June this year (Vajpayee headed a coalition government). In fact, US Secretary of State John Kerry who visited India last week speaks of the relations between the two countries having reached a ”transformative moment.”

Kerry met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday. Earlier, he had a four-hour discussion with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on counterterrorism, clean energy, trade, Afghanistan and regional security.

Kerry’s visit was aimed at laying the groundwork for Modi’s planned visit to Washington in September. The US government had denied Modi a visitor’s visa for almost 10 years because of his inability to stop deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat of which he was the chief executive.

Kerry has gone out of his way to stress that the decision to deny visa to Modi was taken by the previous administration and not by his boss. And has not Obama described the Indo-US relationship as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” during an official visit to India early on in his presidency?

“The moment has never been more ripe to deliver on the incredible possibilities of the relationship between our two nations,” Kerry told a news conference Thursday with Sushma Swaraj on his side. It is possible that Kerry may succeed in reversing Washington’s “clumsy diplomacy” that according to Bill Clinton has kept India and the US “apart.”

But initial signs are not very encouraging. A raft of disputes has cast a shadow over hopes for a warmer relationship. To Washington’s annoyance, India on Thursday blocked a major World Trade Organization pact on customs procedures. The sticking point was India’s demand for exemptions to its broad government food subsidies to its farmers and poor consumers that US believes have undercut fair-market agriculture prices. The two countries have also squared off over regulation of chemical emissions into the environment, the limited number of US visas that are given to visiting Indians, and American surveillance of the ruling Indian political party. To Washington’s embarrassment, reports that the US National Security Agency has spied on BJP also surfaced last Monday.

So Kerry’s visit could be seen mostly as symbolic. Will Modi’s US sojourn in September bring the relationship back on track?

Two factors will determine the contours of future relationship: Pakistan and war on terrorism. In a way these are interrelated. US can’t expect India’s full cooperation in its efforts to combat extremism or terrorism as long as Washington fails to persuade Pakistan to bring those responsible for Mumbai terrorist attacks to book. Some 166 people were killed and hundred others injured in the 2008 attacks. India has strongly protested the adjournment last month of the ongoing trial of the accused in Pakistan.

New Delhi insists on an early conclusion of the trial for normalizing relations with Pakistan and the continuation of dialogue to settle all outstanding issues including Kashmir between the two countries. This is likely to place Washington in a difficult situation and dampen the enthusiasm of all in US and India who share Obama’s hopes for “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.”



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