Mr.Singh comes to Washington

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s five day State visit to the US begins today. The Americans are emphasizing that this is the first official state visit of the Obama presidency, which shows the importance placed on the mutual friendship. The Indians are wary.

As the Bush Administration matured, so did its relationship with India. It gave recognition to the growing import of an emerging India, de-hyphenated it from Pakistan and developed far ranging associations that culminated in signing an Indo-US civilian nuclear deal during Mr. Bush’s last year in office.

The Indians were ecstatic. Achieving GDP growth rates of between seven and nine percent in the first decade of the 21st century, they felt that the sole superpower has finally recognized their potential and their true place in the world. The party had just begun and they were arriving fast on the world stage. Despite being a non-signatory to the NPT, they had been acknowledged as a de facto nuclear power; a permanent seat at the Security Council seemed not to be too far off.

The election that electrified the world made Indians uneasy. Within the first few days of his election, Mr. Obama called leaders in countries throughout the world. Pakistan and China were among the ones called, but India was not. This brought forth memories of how Mr. Obama had reacted to issues regarding India in the past and it gave an indication to how things could be in the future.

Mr. Obama belonged to a group of Democrats that were unsettled over the Indo-US nuclear deal and saw it as a beginning to the unravelling of the NPT regime. The Hyde amendment, which, among other limits, placed restrictions on new nuclear testing by India, was accepted by the then White House to placate this lobby. This did not satisfy this clique, and neither did India’s agreement to have 14 of its 22 reactors be open for inspection, nor the country’s impeccable record of non-proliferation.

In addition, Mr. Obama spoke of US involvement in the Kashmir dispute, reckoning that this would placate the Pakistanis, who would then be more able and willing to help the bad guys on their border with Afghanistan and that this would actually reduce the threat of terrorism by taking away the raison d’etre of many groups like Lakhsar-e-Toiba, who were inching ever closer to al-Qaeda.

With Mr. Obama determined to end the hostilities in Iraq within a couple of years and increasing his commitment to Afghanistan, the importance Pakistan would play in his calculations was not secret.

Within the first week after the elections in November, it was becoming apparent to the Indians that cold water is about to be thrown on the relationship that had grown leaps and bounds under the Bush presidency, even though it was started at the tail end of Mr. Clinton’s.

Their fears proved true as the Obama presidency started. The “Senator from Punjab”, as Ms. Clinton was labelled by Mr. Obama during the campaign, made her first visit as Secretary of State to the People’s Republic of China. In no uncertain terms, she stated that the US would not put the issue of human rights in the way of their mutual relationship. While morality was important, economy takes precedence. It could be that during the current financial crisis, it became clear that the Chinese hold a trillion dollars worth of IOUs, and it would be prudent to keep them amused. That the rest of Ms. Clinton first foreign trip included countries that fall under China’s sphere of influence – in southeast Asia – only highlighted the fact that the equation between China and the US is being rewritten.

As if this was not getting the their attention, the Administration was twisting India’s arm in private to assuage Pakistani fears. The US wanted India to thin its deployment along their border in Kashmir and to start the composite dialog that had been suspended after the terrorist attack in Mumbai on 26 November, 2008. Indians were being ‘adamant’ that Pakistan stop supporting terrorism from its soil, bring the perpetrators of 26/11 (who are Pakistanis) to justice and hand over the terrorists responsible for previous attacks who have now found safe haven in Pakistan under the patronage of the state.

To Indians, it seemed futile to take either of the two actions without Pakistan acceding to these reasonable demands. To Americans, it seemed that all terrorists attacks would cease as soon as the Kashmir issue was solved and everyone in the subcontinent will be singing hakuna matata.

In addition, there were indications from the top levels of the US administration that it was willing to talk to the ‘moderate’ Taliban. This differentiation came from the Pakistanis. The ‘good’ ones were the Afghan Taliban, who were created by the Pakistani covert agency, the ISI, and were used  to fight the proxy war with India in Kashmir and elsewhere. The Pakistani Taliban were the ‘bad’ guys; they attacked the Pakistani state, and it would be good if they were eliminated. This US gesture of trying to find a lesser evil based on Pakistani assumptions did not sit well with Indians, who concluded that terrorist attacks on India is the least of the American concern, despite their rhetoric of War on Terror being universal.

Further, US wants Indians to limit their activity, read influence, in Afghanistan, where India has been active in building schools, roads, hospitals and the like. In the past few years, India has spent over 1.5 billion dollars there. Pakistan, which has regarded Afghanistan as offering it ‘strategic depth’ and would like its influence prevail over that of India, has expressed its displeasure to the US over Indian participation, and has also accused India of helping the Taliban, especially in Baluchistan. While the US concedes that there is no evidence that India is involved in anything more sinister than helping with developing the infrastructure of this war-ravaged nation, it has been pressuring India to limit its exposure in Afghanistan so there is one less excuse for Pakistan to find for being reluctant to help in the war on terror.

Coupled with this arm-twisting, the Administration was also dropping hints that it would not let India get off easy with the conclusion of the nuclear deal. While the deal had been finalized and signed in the waning days of the Bush Administration, certain issues, like reprocessing of spent fuel, had yet to be agreed upon. The nuclear wedding had taken place, but the marriage has yet to be betrothed.

Concurrently, the Kerry-Lugar bill was making rounds at the Congress. This would triple the US aid to Pakistan to the tune of 7.5 billion over the next five years. This civilian aid was new and separate from the hundreds of millions of dollars of annual military aid and covert aid through the CIA (about one-third of CIA’s operating annual budget, according to a recent report in the LA Times). Candidate Obama had promised that there will be no more “blank checks” to Pakistan, yet the White House was pushing the Congress, under Pakistani pressure, to remove the accountability benchmarks that would guide the continuation of the flow of dollars.

By the time the bill reached the President’s desk, it was rather toothless. It was pretty much left for the President to certify every year that Pakistan is behaving well for the aid to continue. To the discomfiture of Indians, language that one of the conditions for aid continuance was that Pakistan would not use its territory to promote terrorism against India was removed. The Pakistanis felt that this gives an impression that Pakistan is actively promoting terrorism, and was therefore insulting.

All these goings on gave Indians a pause. This deep suspicion was turned into belief that Mr. Obama would do anything to bully India, or more conservatively, would give no consideration to India’s interest while conducting US foreign policy when there was a recent Obama-Hu statement in Beijing. It spoke of a joint effort by US and China to lead India and Pakistan to peaceful conclusion over their six-decade long disputes; China would now be a monitor that will oversee South Asia. Indians, who think of themselves as the hegemon of the neighborhood, felt belittled.

Other countries, especially Japan, have noted the deference and allowance the US has given to China now, and also to Russia sometime back. In short, Mr. Obama’s first foreign trip as president has not gone as well as White House had hoped. Mr. Singh’s visit begins just a couple of days after Mr. Obama has returned home from this trip. Combined with the reservations Indians have about America’s commitment to their welfare, it would be interesting to see what this ‘first state visit of the Administration’ will bring.

“Not much”, is the conventional wisdom. It has been mentioned that the Bush Administration has already picked low hanging fruit, like the nuclear deal. Delegates of both nations are trying to put finishing touches on the fate of the spent fuel reprocessing issue, but it is not certain that they will be able to close the deal. There is nothing else that would seem to be a breakthrough.

The State Dinner at the White house on Tuesday is expected to be a gala. With dinner in tents on its lawns, about 400 people are expected to be entertained as compared to about 150 when Mr. Bush wined and dined Mr. Singh inside the White House a few years back. It has been argued that the White House is taking Indians for granted. The Administration believes, the critics contend, that as long they are wined and dined with aplomb, shown ‘respect’, and made to feel that they are ‘important’, Indians will be satisfied.

After all, the White House is playing up the importance of this being the first State visit of the Obama Administration, while trying to play down the joint statement made by the president in China or the other issues that are evolving into bones of contention between the two. Mr. Obama will have to deliver much to earn the trust of one-sixth of humanity, more than just stating that he has tremendous respect for Mr. Singh. He will have to show that he is a sincere friend of India, as much as Mr. Bush was.

Mr. Singh has a lot of expectations riding on him as well. He has risked his prestige and his government to achieve the passage of the civilian nuclear deal in face of stiff domestic opposition. If he fails to secure the conclusion of this treaty in terms favorable to India, he will risk being seen as one who naively succumbed to the designs of ‘untrustworthy’ Americans. Unfortunately, this reputation of the US is not new, but well entrenched.


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