A rich, textured agenda ahead

Obama II... Indo-US ties are set to move from consolidation to multifaceted engagement

First Lady Michelle, US President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and Second Lady Jill Biden acknowledge supporters following Obama winning a second term in the White House. AFPWhen America made history on November 5, 2008 and elected Barack Hussain Obama as its first African-American President, New Delhi was cautiously optimistic. Apprehension was rife on Raisina Hills about Obama’s approaches on several issues of concern to India, from Jammu and Kashmir to non-proliferation and outsourcing of jobs. Diplomats and foreign policy mavens debated if the Obama presidency would see India-US ties losing the momentum built up during his Republican predecessor George W Bush’s term, particularly in respect of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement.

But, as Obama won a second term on November 7, New Delhi did take note of the fact that bilateral ties not only stayed course, but grew during his first tenure. “Over the last four years, consistent with our vision of a global strategic partnership between India and the US, ties between our two democracies have seen sustained growth. We have not only advanced cooperation across the full spectrum of our bilateral relationship, but also deepened our engagement in the pursuit of global peace, stability and prosperity,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wrote to Obama, who not only did his bit to allay New Delhi’s concerns on his administration’s approach on India and its neighbourhood, but also dispelled doubts about his commitment to the nuke deal. Though his rhetoric against outsourcing during the reelection campaign once again triggered India Inc’s concerns over growing US protectionism, New Delhi remains by and large confident of widening the scope of its ties with Washington in the coming years.

New Delhi, indeed, had reasons to be apprehensive about Obama in 2008, when – just days before the polls – he had suggested that US should try to mediate between India and Pakistan to help resolve the issue of Kashmir. And, soon after his January 20, 2009 inauguration, he followed it up with a purported move to add Kashmir in the mandate of his special Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke. Indian diplomats in US lobbied hard to keep Kashmir out. The subsequent years saw Obama maintaining a policy of non-interference in Kashmir and terming it as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.

Obama administration too did not take time to see through the double game of Islamabad. The US Navy SEALs in May 2011 gunned down the Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad, just 120 km away from Islamabad, revealing that the world’s most wanted and elusive terrorist leader was in fact hiding in a complex not far from Pakistan’s elite Military Academy. Months later, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen publicly accused Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence of supporting the dreaded Haqqani Network and Afghan Taliban. Washington’s relations with Islamabad deteriorated further after the NATO bombing killed 24 soldiers of the Pakistani Army near the country’s border with Afghanistan in November 2011.

Obama was the first US President to visit India in his first term. He started his November 2010 visit from Mumbai, where he paid homage to the 26/11 victims and Pakistan to help bring to book the plotters and perpetrators of the carnage. Obama administration also announced a $25 million bounty on 26/11 mastermind and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba founder Hafiz Saeed and stepped up counterterrorism cooperation with India. Though New Delhi was initially apprehensive of implications of an early US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is now reassured that the world community would remain involved in the efforts to stabilise and reconstruct the conflict ravaged country. Obama has not only been appreciative of India’s role in reconstruction of Afghanistan, but Washington, New Delhi and Kabul have in September 2012 also launched a trilateral dialogue mechanism.

In 2009, New Delhi was irked by Obama’s joint statement with Chinese President Hu Jintao, which stated that Washington and Beijing “support the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan” and would “strengthen communication, dialogue and cooperation on issues related to South Asia and work together to promote peace, stability and development” in the region. The statement not only envisaged a greater role for Beijing in South Asia, but also fuelled speculation about a G-2, comprising US and China. He, however, did a course correction later and the G-2 never took off, rather at a time when Beijing’s maritime disputes with Japan, Vietnam and Philippines in East and South China Sea are escalating, Obama pledged to pivot American foreign policy towards Asia.

“I believe that the leadership that both Prime Minister Singh and President Obama have imparted over the last four years has moved India-US strategic partnership from a consolidation phase into one of comprehensive and multifaceted engagement,” New Delhi’s envoy to Washington, Nirupama Rao, wrote after the results of the US presidential polls was out.

Yet, Bush administration’s push for the India-US nuke deal and Washington’s high-octane diplomacy to secure the Nuclear Supplier Group’s waiver for India in 2008 raised the bar of expectation so high that the relative lack of optics during the past four years of Obama presidency, indeed fuelled speculation about a drift. “One of the advantages of the US-India relationship in the transformative phase (during George Bush era) was the fact that it focused on a single big issue – the US-India nuclear deal – which captured everybody’s attention and made clear that we were changing the rules of engagement. I think one of the tasks which those of us who are now engaged in the relationship have to work on is the fact that rather than one big thing, we have a multiplicity of activities in which we are working together, trying to forge an international partnership,” said Geoffrey Pyatt, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in the US Department of State.

So what can India expect from its ties with US in the next four years of Obama presidency. “We have a rich and textured agenda ahead of us,” wrote Rao. Pyatt listed six key areas – economic relation, strategic dialogue, people-to-people ties, energy, defence and counterterrorism cooperation – that India and US focused upon over the past four years and would continue to do so for the next four years to boost bilateral cooperation.

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