THE VISIT OF the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo comes at a time of dampened expectations between India and the US. In Washington, ‘India fatigue’ is now a normal thing while in New Delhi, the attitude is, for the most part, one of strategic confusion notwithstanding a barrage of think-tank reports and op-eds.
Much has been written on irritants in bilateral relations that range from India’s firmness in buying the S-400 missile system from Russia at the risk of American sanctions to New Delhi’s policies on e-commerce and data localisation plans that are viewed as running against American interests. And there are more irritants in the laundry list. What is even more strange is the combining of Leftist and conservative ideas in favour of Indian ‘toughness’ against the US. That all this is counterproductive has never entered the minds of those who peddle these ideas.
Consider the S-400 system. The Indian response to the possibility of US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, 2017 (CAATSA), has been three-fold. One, to plead with Americans for an exemption. Two, bluster about foreign policy independence and national interest, and three, sweeten things by ordering more advanced weapons from the US. As a palliative, this may resolve the crisis but it displays an attitude of muddling through problems on a case-by-case basis.
While no one doubts the usefulness of the S-400 system but is it worth risking damage to a vital relationship? Take a further question: is there any other country that is willing to supply Delhi with both advanced weapons and politico- military heft at the same time, a combination essential to survive in a rough world? Russia may supply weapons but its diplomatic support to India is now qualified with many riders. Then there are practical issues as well: the US is deeply uncomfortable with supplying advanced weapon platforms to any country that buys Russian equipment like the S-400. But that has not prevented India to firmly assert its right to buy what it wants. New Delhi is perfectly within its rights to do so but it must evaluate the larger costs of doing that.
These and other irritants are often considered to be the sum and substance of the current ‘fatigue’ in the relationship. It is a mistake to consider them as the reason for the recurring problems. The root lies somewhere else.
By late ’90s, especially after the then President Bill Clinton made a ground-breaking trip to India, the broad contours of the bilateral relationship have been clear. A decade later, the bilateral embrace tightened to a point that was hard to imagine just some years ago. The high watermark of those years was the securing of an American-led waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) for India. This was in the teeth of opposition from China and some other countries.
This led to all-round euphoria on both sides. But much like caffeine-induced highs, this too led to a low. On the one hand were American expectations of a quick ratcheting up of ties across the board. On the other hand, was India’s bureaucratic lethargy. The result? Another decade later, almost all aspects of the relationship are in the doldrums. From an economic perspective, things have never been rosy and have never really lived up to their promise. Consider something as innocuous as almonds: From the infamous dialogue between PV Narasimha Rao and Bill Clinton in 1994 to the recent Indian imposition of retaliatory tariffs, the nut finds unusual prominence in a relationship that is often touted as a major strategic partnership. It says something about missing the forest for the trees that a country mired in a bureaucratic culture is unable to appreciate bigger realities. The Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) never really took off and negotiations came to an end after nine fruitless years. In such circumstances, it is hard to expect something far more ambitious as a free trade agreement. With Donald Trump in the White House and a hugely protectionist global environment, these ideas are a dead letter.
That leaves just two limbs on which the relationship stands: a defence-strategic partnership and people-to-people contacts, including the efforts of the Indian diaspora in the US to give a boost to ties. Even here, matters have hit a plateau but for deeper reasons than the usual Indian attitude.
The problem from the Indian perspective can be stated in simple terms: It wants a deeper ‘strategic’ relationship with Washington—cutting-edge weapons and actual military help when needed—without antagonising its powerful neighbour China. This is as good as running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. One harsh look from China—against whom India lost a war and has a long-standing border dispute—is enough for New Delhi to claw back on any incremental progress made over the years. A good example is the fate of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or QUAD, a group that includes India, US, Japan and Australia. Over the years, some gung-ho commentators have dubbed this as an ‘Asian NATO’, a laughable proposition given Indian (and at times, Australian) shiftiness on the group. At the military level, the idea never really took off. All that it achieved was a coming together of civilian and military leaders to bounce off ideas. New Delhi, it is abundantly clear, gets spooked at the slightest hint of offending China. A NATO-like structure is way beyond what Indians can imagine when it comes to any collective security idea.
To cap it all, even after nearly three decades of deepening friendship with the US, a large residual anti-American sentiment remains alive and kicking in India. From the moribund halls of Indian universities to a certain geriatric wing of the foreign-policy establishment, a lingering suspicion of the US remains well-entrenched. Former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh pithily summed the attitude in a 1999 article: ‘Yankee go home, but take me with you.’
There are good reasons for careful understanding and implementation of national interests and prudence is a quality that has to undergird all this. But what Indians are displaying is diffidence that borders on lack of self-confidence. Take the example of China. A closer examination of Indian attitudes and actions shows that ideas on dealing with Chinese aggression have remained constant (and consistent) from Bandung to Wuhan. The idea—if it can be called that—is simple: just talk to China and pray that everything will be fine. It is unlikely to be so. India’s ‘firm’ management of Doklam is cited as a new approach. In reality, it was a one-off that kept everyone on tenterhooks until the crisis passed. No one gave a thought as to what would have happened if the two countries had come to blows. Only a fool will yearn for a fight with China. But how about some serious political and military preparation for the day when this becomes unavoidable?
The Americans can see the threat clearly. So can a section of the Indian strategic commentators. But almost always, this is drowned in the din of Sinophiles who have some serious pull in the Indian public and policymaking space. That lies at the heart of the lackadaisical approach towards the US. Mike Pompeo in India may want to relish a thali but US baiters in New Delhi won’t let him do that in peace. And that’s a pity.