This winter season we witness a whirlwind of promising activity in US-India government to government contact. All evidence indicates that this phenomenon is being led personally by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi as countless of their underlings have publicly announced. Is there a bromance blooming as Obama prepares for his second India trip this month, as the first sitting US president to smell the Indian stench twice? I have long argued that the governments’ cooperation is just one prong in the bilateral relationship, and not even the most important one. However, when this goes well it is usually an indication that the relationship is on the right track, and poor diplomacy can certainly derail all the progress.
We are now at an unbelievably critical time. Will the relationship finally turn the corner into a bond of true trust and strength, or will the final two years of the Obama-Modi partnership turn out to be a dud? It’s still too soon to tell, despite proclamations from curmudgeonly cynics that nothing will change, or the orgasming cheerleaders who believe the two nations have started riding off into the sunset already. both views are short-sighted. We are indeed close to the cusp of finding out and the uncertainty is exciting in itself, like an evenly matched sporting event coming right down to the wire. We will know by February or March for certain, so strap on your seat belt and grab some buttered popcorn.
Unquestionably, the relationship is on an upswing since July 2014 when we first brought up the challenges and promise of Modi’s arrival in power vis-a-vis America. In reality, I believe that what was written back then still holds true today in January 2015. To wit:
There are no two nations on this planet, now or back through the history of nations, who have ever failed so dramatically to live up to the potential of their relationship, thanks to an inexplicably large gap between the cooperation that should exist based on common interests and shared values, and the cooperation that exists in reality.
Why haven’t the governments of the United States and India turned the corner yet? Yes, there have been some dramatic victories. On the other hand when it comes to the most critical issues in the relationship, they remain unresolved. And folks, I would argue each of these problems is stupid, dumb, ridiculous, and foolish like the Khobragade dust-up of 2013 and 2014, barely in our rear-view mirror, was. Below is a breakdown of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Yes, OK, the wins are piling up. I have been a close observer of the Indian-American community lobby for the last 17 years. It has largely been underwhelming and disjointed. Imagine my surprise when this loose, motley band of political, business, and medical interests, better known for eating their own young, was able to defeat the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) in a yearlong battle and muscle the young Vivek Murthy, a guy who dared to call gun violence an epidemic, into office as the US Surgeon General. Wow.
So bright is the Indian-American star right now, that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal needed to proclaim that he strives to be just an American and not an Indian-American to calm down the nervous conservatives who feel threatened by the mostly liberal, and by far wealthiest of all US communities per capita. Interestingly, the Indian-American lobby has also locked arms with Washington’s Israel lobby, and learned much from this larger, older, and slicker group.
Add to this Modi’s rock star reception in New York City and Washington in September, the appointment of Richard Verma as the first Indian-American US Ambassador to India, the nomination of India friend Ash Carter to be the next US Defense Secretary, a trillion-dollar loosening of anal sphincter muscles at the WTO that will allow food to flow freely, and the likely signing of new defense frameworks and weapon co-development for the first time, and we are seeing a very positive narrative emerging. This has all happened within the last few months.
However, the hurdles loom large and based on history, we know that Obama and Modi could very easily trip over those as they hop, skip and jump along arm in arm.
The challenges. Make no mistake sports fans, the challenges are huge. However, if they are overcome, the renaissance can be declared as real. Anything truly worth having should not be easy to get, whether it is on a date or at a Republic Day in India on January 26th, 2015 (which is both).
Number one in my opinion is nuclear liability. Yes, the threat of a meltdown not just in talks, but of reactors that US companies may help to build on Indian soil are quite real. The figurative reverberations from Fukushima were felt by continental cousin, New Delhi. The Union Carbide disaster of 1984 in Bhopal and the unforgivably pathetic responses by the US corporation, US government, and US press have tarnished America’s name permanently in India. Indian leaders will never forget this for as long as they live, and they could not if they wanted to as the devastating health and environmental impacts are still being felt more than 30 years later. On a related note, the United States, rightly or wrongly, takes a patronizing view of India’s nuclear weapons arsenal: “We have them, but you shouldn’t.”
The trust issues here may be real, but the path forward is obvious. Insurance and liability across borders are dealt with all the time by civilized nations. US corporations stand to make serious profits, while power-starved India could make a first baby step toward some modicum of energy independence. Russia and other nations are standing by to provide India a helping hand if the United States does not. Complete an agreement that shares the burden among both sides with promises not to renege. Then stick to it, at all costs, which will be less of a cost than the alternative to both sides. It really isn’t that hard.
Immigration is the next biggest bugbear in US-India relations. The Indian side has been active on this front: combining the OCI and PIO schemes is a coup for Indian-Americans like myself; allowing Americans “visa on arrival” is another masterstroke which will bring lots of US dollars into India’s economy. Yet they are simple common sense measures, the type that the USA keeps stumbling over. There is now consensus among the business community, security establishment, academia, and high-tech sector that strict American caps on Indian immigration are stifling Stateside innovation in a country where American kids are being blown out of the water on STEM education. It’s bad for colleges. It’s bad for the Pentagon. It’s bad for Silicon Valley. It’s bad for corporate boardrooms. It’s a no-brainer. If Obama and Congress were to make a move on visa output and extending Indians already in the US, the global economy would get a powerful kick-start. The strict caps are a scandal of our time.
Pakistan and Russia make India and the United States grumpy, respectively. The close US-Pakistan relationship, and the Indo-Russia one are both related casualties of that, and the main reasons why the US and India are not full allies. But foreign policy is a somewhat chaotic and anarchic marketplace, and the US will continue to rely on Pakistan as it bumbles around Afghanistan, while India will keep dancing in order to receive Russian arms and energy at low prices. These factors are not likely to change, regardless of what anybody seems to think of them. Like a jilted spouse, both countries need to move on, because the need that the US and India have for each other is also not going anywhere. This acceptance, and discontinuing the unnecessary mean words by both countries about who they choose to be friends with, will go light years toward their own friendship.
Stuck in Neutral. That’s all she wrote, folks. If nuclear liability is solved, Indian immigration to America is reformed, and friendships are not questioned, we are switching from neutral to drive. At such a point, the momentum of progress would be so powerful as to be unlikely to ever undo again. Then, the entire conversation would change from two steps back, one step forward to two steps forward, one step back for the first time in US-India relations.
Other indicators, such as increasing bilateral trade beyond the currently projected $100 billion per year, are driven not by the governments but by the impressive private sectors of both nations. In fact, what we need more of is for both governments to get out of the damn way once basic frameworks of regulation are in place. There are many niggling disagreements, none more important that settling on intellectual property rights (IPR), viewed very differently by the two nations. American companies and individuals want more protection. Talks on this seem to be progressing, and their settlement will pave the road to $500 billion annual bilateral trade as much as any issue.
The ongoing problems at the WTO and about nuclear liability are symptoms of a larger problem of political meddling on both sides of the globe.
Defense issues are much trickier as we’ve indicated recently. If the most solemn duty of government is to protect its citizens, this will be the last domino of trust to drop. This is why a true security alliance between the two nations is perhaps 5-10 years away, barring unforeseen circumstances, and despite the glaring need for it.
I am not yet convinced that the United States and India are committed to a closer defense partnership, despite increasing arms sales, joint exercises, and potential co-development of weapons. These are chump change in the grander scheme. The US and India do not fight next to each other anywhere, including where it would make sense, against IS. Assuming the governments allow weapon co-development to happen, and they no doubt should, the onus is not on governments but the private sectors to make the partnership work. If American companies dick around with their Indian partners, or if Indian partners cheat their American counterparts, both of which have long and documented histories, the renaissance of respect may seem a mirage, as so many of my friends in the business world like to say about US-India business prospects. This is not entirely in Obama’s or Modi’s hands.
In this endeavor, the good news is that Ash Carter will likely be the next Defense Secretary of the United States. His counterpart (and my fellow Konkani) Manohar Parrikar, India’s new Defence Minister is also a hyper-educated scientist, so when the two talk to each other, in theory they can have high-level technocratic discussions that can only bode well for global military security and cyber-security.
In Conclusion. At more than any point in history, we are at the fork in the road. Two roads diverged in the wood. This moment is more than 70 years in the making, and Obama and Modi deserve credit for coming this far.
At this point we need to give our disclaimer. As a relentlessly neutral analyst and one who is entirely realistic, we really do not know which way this is going to go. usindiamonitor is dedicated toward reporting the truth in all its benevolence and cruelty, not to encourage success in the US-India relationship. And thus the focus here is on facts.
The hurdles are large. The uniquely government-centered penchant to muck things up is ever-present. The ups and downs are both highly inevitable. And yet, and yet I have a feeling about which way this is going to go.
Is it a burgeoning bromance or business as usual? Come back soon to find out.
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor