PM's 'best' moment in office remains an empty shell

History was made at the Benjamin Franklin Room of the US state department on October 10, 2008, when the then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Indian external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee signed the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement. Prime minister Manmohan Singh recently recalled the historic moment as the ‘best’ of his 10 years in the office. He said that the deal had ended the ‘nuclear apartheid’ that India had been subjected to by the international community after the first nuke tests it had carried out in Pokhran in 1974. The Indo-US nuke agreement, or, to be more precise, the ‘clean waiver’ Nuclear Suppliers Group granted India to make the deal possible, indeed opened up ways for New Delhi to ink similar pacts with other countries too.

The nuke deal, which Singh and then American president George W Bush agreed upon in 2005, was also a watershed for Indo-US ties. It “unlocked”, as Rice put it, “a new and far broader world of potential” for strategic partnership in the 21st century, not just on nuclear cooperation, but on every area of national endeavour.”

Five-and-a-half years have passed since Rice and Mukherjee signed the deal. Yet its commercial implementation is yet to start. India’s overall relations with the US too seemed to have been plagued by many other thorny issues. The L’affaire Devyani Khobragade has just made matters worse.

When Barack Hussain Obama was elected as the first African-American President of the US in November 2008, diplomats and foreign policy mavens in India debated if the Indo-US ties would lose the momentum it gained during his Republican predecessor Bush’s term. Just days before the polls, Obama had suggested that Washington should try to mediate between New Delhi and Islamabad to help resolve the issue of Kashmir so that Pakistan could shift focus from its eastern border to hunt down extremists in its north-western frontier and thus help the US in its offensive against Taliban in Afghanistan. 

Floating hope

New Delhi was also irked by Obama’s November 17, 2009 joint statement with then Chinese President Hu Jintao, which not only envisaged a greater role for Beijing in South Asia, but also fuelled speculation about a G-2, comprising US and China. There was however a sign of course correction about a fortnight later when Obama hosted Singh at the White House as the first state guest of his administration. A year later, hope floated again when Obama came on a landmark visit to Mumbai and New Delhi.

The hope was however belied in the subsequent years. The Indo-US ties not only hit a plateau, but a perceptible drift also set in. India’s Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act slowed down commercial implementation of the nuke deal. Washington publicly expressed its ‘deep disappointment’ in April 2011, when New Delhi dropped two US contenders from the fray for the $10.4 billion contract to provide 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircrafts for the Indian Air Force. A beleaguered United Progressive Alliance Government could not speed up reforms as much as the America Inc wanted it to. 

Obama, himself expressed concern over restrictions on foreign direct investment in “too many sectors” in India and stated that US companies found it “too hard to invest in India”. The government did later ease norms for foreign capital inflow to multi-brand retail and telecom sectors and decided to consider FDI proposals beyond the existing 26 per cent limit in the defence sector on case-to-case basis. But the US industry still have grouse about India’s alleged ‘discriminatory trade practices’ intellectual property rights protection, local content restrictions and other taxation problems. 

India too had its own share of heartburns. None in New Delhi expected the US to speed up the UN reforms after Obama’s pledge to support India’s bid for permanent seat in the Security Council. But even the membership of the export control regimes remained elusive. There has been noteworthy progress in defence and counter-terrorism cooperation, but terror-plotter David Headley’s plea bargain, which safeguarded him from being sent to India to stand trial for aiding 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, was a serious irritant. 

New Delhi was upset about US protectionism, which manifested itself in clamours against outsourcing of jobs and moves to restrict entry of India’s information technology professionals to America. Edward Snowden’s revelations last year also brought out the fact that India was among the top targets of spying by the US National Security Agency, which also planted bugs at Indian embassy in Washington DC as well as the India’s permanent mission in the United Nations in New York. New Delhi publicly played it down, but raised the issue repeatedly in it parleys with Washington, which obviously has not yet come up with plausible explanations.

To top it all off came the arrest of Indian Foreign Service officer Devyani Khobragade in New York on December 12. The way she was humiliated by US authorities and the strong response from New Delhi made many wonder if it was indeed back to square one for India-America ties.

Bush has long left White House and retired to his home in Dallas. Singh too is set to leave the Prime Minister’s Office after the parliamentary polls in April-May. The promises of that landmark moment at the Franklin Room in 2008, however, still remain unfulfilled.

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