India as a market

Principally, the US will expect greater market access, especially if the Indian economy comes out of the present trough.

If the prospect of a ‘Mormon moment’ in the politics of America intrigued the Indian leadership in the run-up to the presidential election in the United States, it certainly didn’t display it. Indeed, capitalism as a religion could be a tantalising thought. The pundits crowed, though, that the Republicans were ‘good for India’ (which is debatable, considering that the only instance of a potential confrontation between the two countries is to be traced to Richard Nixon’s presidency). The non-resident Indian community in the US apparently rallied behind Mitt Romney.

In the event, Indian leadership scrambled to congratulate Barack Obama – and his two lovely daughters – on his convincing victory as if that was the natural thing to happen. Actually, India didn’t figure in the US election. The ties with India do not become the stuff of polemics in US politics. But then, arguably, it also has the chastening effect of underscoring that relations with India are not exactly a foreign-policy priority for the US – unlike, say, China or the Middle East. India didn't draw flak even for allegedly taking away American jobs.

It does mean something significant that over 80 per cent of Americans today are of the view that the primary objective of the US foreign policy should be to create jobs in the economy, while only less than 15 per cent would think “values” matter – democracy, human rights, and so on. Put differently, we know what to expect in Obama’s second term. Obama has an extraordinarily focused mind and his top foreign-policy priorities are going to be: a) managing China’s rise; b) choreographing the US’ discourse with the Muslim world; and c) developing all-round synergy for the recovery of the US economy. His first destination abroad after securing a second term is Myanmar.

From the Indian viewpoint, formidable challenges lie ahead. Principally, the US will expect greater market access, especially if the Indian economy comes out of the present trough, and, second, will press New Delhi to proceed on the path of neo-liberal policies. The attraction that the Indian market holds for increased US exports – civilian and military – will ensure a sustained US engagement with our country. That is to say, India’s ability to be a meaningful economic interlocutor for the US is going to be the most critical factor giving verve to the overall relationship.

Can India rise to the occasion? Taking into account the turbulence in domestic politics, which can be expected to continue until the next general election and the formation of a new coalition government, the UPA-II is handicapped. Unsurprisingly, the US is also hedging its bets, as is evident from the signs of Washington gradually exorcising its visceral dislike of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

Political track

The high probability is that Obama’s second term will be a transformative period as regards the US’ equations with the Muslim world. Obama is likely to revive the impulses he presented in his famous speech in Cairo University in 2009 as his presidential legacy and as a man of history. There are growing signs that he is taking the US as far away as possible from the doctrines of unilateralist military interventions toward multilateralism and the United Nations. The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan; aversion to intervention in Syria; adherence to the political track while seeking solution to the Iran problem; coming to terms with the ascendancy of Islamism as an expression of democratic choice – these would have a calming effect on the Middle East question. They also conform to India’s vital interests in its extended neighbourhood. 

This brings us to the big question of the US’s ‘rebalancing’ in Asia. We ought to have the utmost clarity of thinking regarding the future trajectory of US-China relationship. The studied aloofness that India took vis-à-vis Washington’s invitation for it to be the ‘lynchpin’ of the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy was and continues to be the most judicious course, although some disquieting signs have since appeared of an ambivalent swing in favour of the ‘quadripartite alliance’ of Asian democracies that characterised the Indian regional policy in the mid-2000s.

The matrix is such that the option of ‘containment’ strategy toward China no longer exists. To be sure, the ‘pivot’ to Asia introduces friction in the US-China ties. But Obama also constantly seeks to expand economic cooperation with China, while Beijing, in turn, can be trusted to do all it can to leverage its unique capacity to be of help for the US’ economic recovery.

 The denseness of the relationship between the two countries and its irreversible interdependency is evident even from cold statistics: bilateral trade is touching $500 billion; roughly 10,000 people travel to each other any single day; China is the biggest lender for the hopelessly indebted US economy. As China presses the accelerator on the course correction from an export-driven growth strategy toward increasing the domestic consumption, Obama would see enormous scope for advancing US business interests in the Chinese market. And all this leaves out the positive role China can play in stabilising the global economy.

Suffice to say, Obama’s second coming offers great opportunities for India. The co-relation of forces internationally works to India’s advantage, provided it purses an independent foreign policy. India finds itself in a comfortable position in terms of deepening the partnership with the US and tapping into the US’ ‘rebalancing’ while at the same time making its own normalisation with China predictable.

(The writer is a former ambassador)

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