To Delhi, via State capitals
C. Raja Mohan
08 May 2012
Washington's frustration with the slow progress in relations with India is real. Some of that will surely be reflected in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's conversations in Delhi on Tuesday.
Clinton and other friends of India in the United States, however, should know there is nothing personal here; nor is the current Indian policy inertia directed against the US.
India's foreign policy towards all its major interlocutors has been adrift for a while. The UPA government that began its tenure eight years ago this month was eager to take bold initiatives towards the US, China and Pakistan - historically its most challenging relationships. More recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched an ambitious outreach towards Bangladesh.
Delhi, however, is finding it hard to finish what it started on these important foreign policy accounts. Delhi's lack of political will is not limited to the conduct of diplomacy; its current paralysis is all-encompassing.
The PM used to sing the virtues of risk-taking when he launched India's economic reforms in the early 1990s. He put his political life on the line to defend the historic civil nuclear initiative with the US. He now seems unable or unwilling to lead on either economic policy or diplomacy.
With the Delhi Durbar at its dysfunctional worst, power is flowing away from Delhi to state capitals, where some strong men and women are ruling. India's external partners tend to see this with much greater clarity than the domestic observers of Delhi's current listlessness.
No wonder Clinton has travelled to Kolkata to sit down with the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Last year, the Chinese government laid out the red carpet to Gujarat CM Narendra Modi and his Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar.
If Mamata has the last word on India's policy towards foreign direct investment in the retail sector, why won't outsiders go to Kolkata? If Gujarat and Bihar are places where you can get things done, aren't the Chinese communist leaders smart enough to woo the chief ministers of the two states? If Beijing was quick in wanting to woo Modi, Washington might take a little longer to give the BJP leader a visa to travel to the US. It is only a matter of time.
The diplomatic bonus for the foreign governments making a trek to state capitals lies in the connections they are likely to establish with India's potential new rulers and power brokers.
India's foreign interlocutors are all adapting to the power vacuum in Delhi and beginning to deal with those who might fill it after the next general elections that are due in 2014 or earlier.
Meanwhile, many in Washington are now complaining that the US-India relationship was "oversold" during the years of the George W. Bush administration and that its potential was always limited.
They point to Delhi's inability to keep its word on offering 10,000 MW of nuclear power reactor contracts to US vendors. They are upset at losing the bid for the supply of 126 fighter jets for the Indian Air Force. The US business has not got the market access it has been looking for in India.
American analysts also point to the inability of Delhi and Washington to cooperate in the multilateral arena, especially on issues relating to the Middle East. The political divergence between Delhi and Washington on how to deal with Iran's nuclear weapons programme has been in the headlines for a while.
Some of those complaining today in Washington are the very same folk who opposed the normalisation of bilateral relations with India during the Bush years. There are others who had visualised a more rapid movement on bilateral relations.
Much of this American griping does not merit too close a scrutiny, for any objective assessment of Indo-US relations today will acknowledge the extraordinary movement over the last decade.
Recall the US ambassador Robert Blackwill's description of bilateral trade in the early 2000s: "flat as a chapati". Bilateral trade in services and goods has grown rapidly in the last few years and is likely to touch $100 billion this year.
It is expected to double again in the coming years. India is now the 13th largest trading partner of the US. Meanwhile, US FDI in India has soared to $30 billion in the last few years.
For decades, defence cooperation was conspicuous by its absence in Indo-US ties. After all, Delhi was closer to Moscow than Washington during the Cold War. Over the last few years, India has already bought many big-ticket defence items from the US and $8 billion dollars worth of orders are in the pipeline right now.
On the political front, the engagement between the two nations has never been as intense and wide-ranging as it is today. The old divergence between Delhi and Washington on Afghanistan, Pakistan and China has begun to narrow. There is no denying the enduring differences on Iran, but there is no reason to overstate it either.
While the talking heads in Washington and Delhi argue over Iran, the two governments seem to have a reasonable understanding of each other's interests. They are determined not to embarrass each other in public.
There is no question that a more purposeful Delhi would have accelerated the transformation of Indo-US relations and leveraged it with other powers for national benefit. As a political leader, Clinton is aware that liberal democracies often get stuck in policy doldrums.
While India and the US wait for Delhi to get its act together again, Clinton's focus must remain on the long-term structural convergence of interests between the two nations, minimising the differences on the Middle East, expanding the engagement in the Indo-Pacific, and deepening the institutional linkages between the two states and societies.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
Courtesy: The Indian Express, May 8, 2012,