The photo-ops with CEOs and students notwithstanding, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much anticipated visit to India did not reach anywhere near the euphoria that marked the visit of her husband President Clinton to India in 2000. Her interactions also seemed to lack the genuine bonhomie between two friends that was seen during the visit of President Bush in 2006. But, to be fair to the Secretary of State, the dark clouds converging on the relationship are not entirely of her own making, but are partly the result of the inherent contradictions in the relationship coming to the fore in the absence of the formidable champions of the relationship who were present in the previous Administration starting with the President himself.
Bowing to the inevitable, the new Obama Administration was welcomed with cautious optimism in New Delhi based on the presence of a number of well-wishers in the Administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Vice-President Joe Biden, even if the President himself was an unknown quantity. Even the initial lack of engagement with New Delhi on the part of the Administration was put down to exigent circumstances such as the Administration’s preoccupation with the financial crisis, and with the formulation of a new policy towards Afghanistan as well as the Indian general elections which were announced in March to take place through the months of April and May. A new government headed by outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took office only in the first week of June.
In the interim, the Obama Administration fructified its policy on Afghanistan which placed greater emphasis on stabilising Pakistan and also forged ahead with non-proliferation and climate change initiatives, on both of which the two countries do not see eye to eye on procedure even if they might be in broad agreement on principles. The global financial crisis also led to a re-assessment of the US relationship with China, which now holds additional weightage as America’s largest creditor. The end-result of this combination of circumstances is that the US has momentarily lost the appetite to build up India as a counter-weight to China and finds itself in a bind over Pakistani intransigence over a variety of issues citing the India factor. The US Administration now “views India as complicating, not relieving the many problems and challenges the administration prioritises or faces”, to quote an analyst.
Having gone out on a limb to improve relations with the United States, the Manmohan Singh government now finds itself in a precarious position where it has to conduct inter-governmental relations with an Administration with which it is yet to develop the kind of trust and vision that overcame many of the obstacles faced in the Bush-Manmohan era. Hillary Clinton’s visit, though meant to redress this, has had the opposite effect of vitiating the atmosphere. Even before the visit began, it came under the shadow of what was seen as successive missteps of the Indian government under US pressure on climate change and relations with Pakistan. The Secretary of State’s choice of her India visit to reclaim her perceived dwindling hold over her foreign policy domain meant that she could only go back with a prize. The prize in this case was the End User Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) which had been hanging fire due to Indian misgivings on its impact on national sovereignty. The signing of this Agreement opens the doors for unfettered sales of US military equipment to India. Another Agreement signed, the Technology Safeguards Agreement (TSA), allowing Indian satellite launch vehicles to carry cargoes containing US-licensed spacecraft components, was also firmly rooted in similar commercial considerations.
The perception that these Agreements were bulldozed through, whether to provide feathers in Mrs. Clinton’s cap or not, would make it that much harder for the Singh government to maintain that the partnership is one of equals. Certain sections of the foreign policy and security elite, as well as the political establishment cutting across party lines, continue to view the Strategic Partnership with suspicion, and memories of American hostility towards India are sufficiently recent for their ranks to keep expanding or dwindling depending on circumstances. While the Singh government was able to weather opposition over the nuclear deal from these sections, a closing of their ranks might end up with the government having won the battle but losing the war.
With strategic relations in such disarray, economic relations, one of the other prime motivators for US engagement with India, has also not come to the rescue this time around. The global recession has led to the ugly head of protectionism rearing its head again, with linkages being made between climate change and trade barriers in legislation before the US Congress. President Obama’s constant reference to Bangalore as being the source of the nation’s employment woes has been read correctly by its intended recipients. On one hand, Indian companies have cut down on H1B visa applications, with companies such as TCS not applying for even a single visa this year, and on the other, US Immigration, taking cues from President Obama, has become proactive in rejecting requests for extension of H1B visas, leading to a large-scale exodus of Indian techies from the United States. Whether there exists sufficient opportunities for these returning skilled workers in the current economic climate and the resultant societal implications remains to be seen. The fact remains that employment opportunities for Americans would only benefit marginally from this move and is at cross-purposes with Secretary of State Clinton’s declaration that “excellent relations between India and the United States rests on the bedrock of kinship, commerce and educational ties between the Indian and American people.”
In this context, the Secretary of State could do well to go into the antecedents of the technical term, US-India 3.0, which she borrowed from the Internet to formulate her vision of where India-US relations would head under her watch. While Web 1.0 was more about static content and one-way communication, roughly analogous to India-US relations around the time of President Clinton’s visit in 2000, Web 2.0 marked a progression to dynamic content and two-way communication, again similar to the situation during the Bush Presidency. Web 3.0 refers to the nascent social networking revolution and diffused computing more commonly known as “cloud computing”; a similar outcome in strategic relations calls for a fundamental shift in approach on the part of the United States on the nature of its engagement with India, away from the old approach of taking away with one hand what it gives with the other, all the while mouthing platitudes. The Indian government could also do well to be more proactive on a number of issues ranging from joint defence co-production to taking forward the process of working on a totalisation agreement that would release the huge sums of money that are taken by way of social security taxes from Indian workers in the United States. A one-sided dialogue would only lead to a reversion to US-India 1.0 rather than the upgrade to version 3.0 that has been promised by Madame Clinton.