India-US ties and the Soviet baggage

Till about a decade ago, India and the US were talking to each other on 38 platforms. Now they are talking at one another. Such difficulties have been compounded by a tendency in India to run down Trump and view him as a bull in the global diplomatic China shop. But there is hope as the new External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, does not believe in demonising Trump.

KP Nayar
Strategic Analyst

AT the root of most of the gripe in recent weeks about the state of relations between New Delhi and Washington is a long-standing popular expectation since the demise of the Soviet Union that as India and the US got closer, the latter would become a substitute for Russia.

It is an expectation that is shared in India not merely at the popular level, but in the media, sections of which plug this line as their wishful thinking. Because of the heavy American influence on the think tank community and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the public discourse on Indo-US relations has also fostered such an expectation.

Policy-makers within successive Indian governments since then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao — during whose tenure the Soviet Union collapsed — have mostly had serious reservations about such a perception. Unfortunately, their American counterparts have both publicly and privately encouraged the policy line that with the fall of the Berlin Wall and with the East bloc gone, all that was needed was for India and America to consummate their marriage that was made in heaven and ordained by their horoscopes matched by the constellations of democracy, English language, the rule of law and so on.

Additionally, after the George W Bush-Manmohan Singh nuclear deal, which ended India’s long nuclear winter, Americans at every level of strategic thought, both within their administrations and outside, nursed a sense of entitlement about India. When Sanjaya Baru, then PM’s Media Adviser, handed over the first consignment of Alphonso mangoes to then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in June 2007 at the annual meeting of the US-India Business Council, a senior State Department official standing next to this writer loudly exclaimed: “We give India the nuclear bomb and all we get in return is a basket of mangoes.”

This official’s reaction was patently an exaggeration, but it reflected the strong feelings within the Washington establishment then — as also now. His reference was to the historic nuclear deal which ended a three decade-old ban on India’s trade in nuclear material and technology, initially with the US and eventually with the rest of the world. Till 2007, mangoes — like many other Indian agricultural products — could not be exported to the US despite New Delhi’s strenuous efforts because of stringent US regulations.

In May 2006, Boeing invited Indian journalists based in Washington to visit the company’s highly secure and heavily restricted Integrated Defence Systems headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, where its modern military aircraft were being designed and developed. Word had been out then that India was about to order 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), the biggest military aviation deal in history. The invitation was meant to familiarise the Indian public with US defence capabilities. Indo-US defence trade had not picked up in 2006 to anywhere near what it is today.

Pin-stripe-suited Boeing senior executives, who flew down to St Louis to smoke exquisite cigars and sip premium cognac with the journalists at the Ritz Carlton’s Cigar Club, were smug in their belief that the MMRCA deal would go to US companies which were preparing to bid as soon as the tendering process was set in motion by the Congress-led government. When this writer told an executive that a deal as big as the one for 126 planes would take at least five years to be negotiated, he dismissed that view with contempt. “We have been told that in six months everything would be completed once the process begins,” he said confidently.

In the end, it took a decade to sign an agreement for partial purchase of the original 126 planes and the deal did not go to American companies. This anecdote is worth narrating because it is just one of the many examples of how companies in the US have little idea of how to do business in India and are ill-equipped to cope with the peculiarities of decision-making in the Indian government.

Just as US administrations want to send Indian-Americans as Ambassadors to India in the belief that they can swing things for them in New Delhi, US companies and lobbying groups hire retired bureaucrats from Lutyens’ Delhi whose contacts are from a bygone era. Sadly for economic and trade relations between the two countries, there are many instances where these men and women have given wrong advice to their principals back in America. But when things go wrong, the blame is on India, as many Americans in the Donald Trump administration and outside are doing now.

After the thick ice between Washington and New Delhi caused by the 1998 nuclear tests melted through the most comprehensive dialogue in their history between then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s confidant Jaswant Singh and then President Bill Clinton’s troubleshooter Strobe Talbott and bilateral relations eventually took off, 38 working groups came into being to catalyse Indo-US relations across the board.

But six months after Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, she found these 38 groups to be mere talking shops. During a visit to New Delhi in July 2009, she persuaded her Indian counterpart SM Krishna to scrap these working groups. In their place, Clinton and Krishna created the lofty-sounding ‘five principal pillars’ of their relationship: strategic cooperation; energy and climate change; education and development; economics, trade and agriculture; science, technology, health and innovation.

In retrospect, this was a mistake. When there were 38 working groups, there was constant toing and froing between the two sides and they were in constant and unbroken dialogue offering numerous windows to understand differences and disputes. India and the US were talking to each other then on 38 platforms. Now they are talking at one another.

Such difficulties have been compounded by a tendency in India to run down Trump and view him as a bull in the global diplomatic China shop. But there is hope because the new External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, does not believe in demonising Trump. When he was Foreign Secretary, within a month of Trump’s inauguration as President, Jaishankar began advising those in India who practise diplomacy and engage in strategic thought. “Do not demonise Trump, analyse Trump. He represents a thought process. It is not a momentary expression” what Trump is saying, has been Jaishankar’s approach. If Trump is re-elected President next year, India will have to follow this advice in letter and spirit or give up on India’s most important foreign policy priority.

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