India-US Strategic Dialogue – Not So Smooth Sailing

US Secretary of State John Kerry recently visited New Delhi to attend the 5th India-US Strategic Dialogue. During his stay, he held discussions with his counterpart Sushma Swaraj which was followed by his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This represented the first high—level contacts between the US and India since Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014. Reports on the outcome of those meetings seem to show there is still much unevenness in the equation, in spite of the rather grand rhetoric in the US ahead of the trip.

Before his departure Kerry had declared that it was a ‘transformative moment’ in the relationship and described India and the US both as being ‘great powers’ and ‘great democracies.’ Hailing Modi’s vision, he went so far as to cite Modi’s own slogan ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ (together with all, development for all). This represents quite a turnaround since 2005 when Modi was a dirty word in the US State Department, and was refused a visa over alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots. After the landslide BJP victory in recent elections, however, all that changed.

The Delhi rendezvous is being seen as an ice-breaker in preparation for the Obama-Modi summit due to take place in Washington this month. But what made the news was Sushma Swaraj’s statement that she had told Kerry about Indian anger over US snooping on the BJP leadership, as exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

WTO Deal Collapses

While trade and commerce took centre stage, the strategic dialogue covered a whole gamut of issues including defence, security, energy, climate change, science and technology, US nuclear plants, a US immigration bill affecting visas for Indian IT professionals and much else. But the talks were overshadowed by the collapse (in Geneva) of a landmark WTO trade pact owing to India’s objections.

It appears that India refused to go along with the deal to protect its massive food security programme. Hundreds of millions of poor reportedly benefit by this scheme where grain is bought at inflated prices and sold at subsidised rates. Rich nations say it distorts trade. While India’s move seems to have thrown the WTO into some disarray, Modi in his meeting with Kerry emphasised the need for developed countries to understand the challenges of poverty in developing countries and their governments’ responsibilities in addressing them, when discussions take place in international forums.

In spite of the Modi Government’s stated desire to open up trade, attract foreign investment, encourage technology transfer, etc. — all of which were anticipated in the US partnership — the WTO fiasco would seem to point to some mismatch in India-US equation that may be more intractable than either party cares to admit. This tension was evident under the previous regime too.

Strategic Partnership Stalled

In September last year when the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met President Obama in Washington and the two leaders endorsed a joint declaration on defence cooperation, it seemed like a high point in the US-India relationship, which was referred to as a ‘strategic partnership’. But since then progress has stalled, if not deteriorated. At least three developments may be recalled, that revealed uneasiness in the India-US equation.

One was during the Ukraine crisis when Russia sent troops into Crimea. India’s then National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon in his initial comments expressed the hope that Ukraine would settle its internal problems peacefully, but also made reference to ‘legitimate Russian and other interests’ that needed to be discussed. India signalled that it would not abandon its old friend Russia, its biggest arms supplier.

Then there was the row over the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who was arrested and strip-searched in the US over a case of visa fraud. Delhi was outraged by the treatment of its representative and the ill feeling rankled long after Khobragade’s return was negotiated.

A third instance where India’s differences with the US surfaced was during the vote on the US-led resolution against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council in March, where India abstained.

Inherent Contradictions

During the recent visit by a team of BJP ideologues who held a discussion in Colombo on aspects of foreign policy under Modi, it became clear that economic resurgence was a top priority for the new government. Modi was pledged to opening up the economy, boosting trade, creating jobs and generating incomes. It was revealed that some members of the delegation had for several years personally worked on developing better ties with the US and the West, besides China, Israel and Taiwan. It’s known that US support is important for India in its bid for a permanent seat on a reformed UN Security Council. India wants Western technology as well. But the delegates also said India under Modi sought to give an ‘Asian personality’ to the global power structure.

Modi has demonstrated from the time he took office, that India’s priority was the neighbourhood and Asia. The first signal was his unconventional move of inviting SAARC leaders to his swearing-in ceremony. His first foreign trip was to Bhutan. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj already met her Sri Lankan counterpart in Delhi and has visited Nepal and Bangladesh. She is now set to visit Myanmar — ASEAN’s chair for 2014. Another move on the international stage was signing up for the BRICS Development Bank, intended to counter global financial institutions controlled by the West. All of this seems to show that India under Modi is asserting a leadership role that is rooted in an Asian/developing countries’ perspective.

How does this square with the stated desire to woo the West? Only time will tell how the apparent contradictions will play out in the longer term. For now, developments like the WTO bust up seem to indicate that ‘rejecting Nehruvian socialist policies’ as the BJP professes to do, is easier said than done — probably for good reasons.

Courtesy: The Sunday Times

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