Bharat Mat­ters ki Jai

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - Seema Sirohi

US de­fence sec­re­tary Ash­ton Carter’s visit to In­dia has re­newed the de­bate on whether a deep­en­ing part­ner­ship with the US is worth the risk of irk­ing China, alien­at­ing Rus­sia and los­ing strate­gic au­ton­omy. Some fear In­dia might be­come a ‘client state’ like Pak­istan. This, when In­dia has the fourth most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary and is the fastest-grow­ing econ­omy to­day. Oth­ers have asked for more de­bate be­fore In­dia is even­tu­ally conned into play­ing Amer­i­can games.

Yet, oth­ers see closer ties with the US as a lazy sub­sti­tute for a strong, co­her­ent vi­sion about In­dia’s place in the world. This is baf­fling be­cause Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi has clearly said he wants In­dia to grad­u­ate from a “bal­anc­ing” to a “lead­ing role”. The for­eign sec­re­tary in sev­eral speeches has also elab­o­rated on how the gov­ern­ment sees the world and In­dia’s place in it. How In­dia gets there with so much do­mes­tic dys­func­tion is the real ques­tion.

Yes, Modi is gam­bling big on Amer­ica. But he is nei­ther go­ing in blind nor ig­nor­ing other ma­jor or mi­nor part­ners. There have been min­is­te­rial-level vis­its to more than 100 coun­tries, in­clud­ing those long ne­glected. There is both am­bi­tion and ac­tiv­ity to ex­pand the cir­cle of friends.

It’s a bolder In­dia less afraid of power games: if you don’t play, you can’t win. A stronger re­la­tion­ship with the US im­proves the odds. Modi doesn’t want In­dia to sit out the game and hope for the best.

Carter’s trip to In­dia is an im­por­tant piece in the new dy­namic set in mo­tion with Modi’s Septem­ber 2014 visit to Wash­ing­ton. Also re­call Barack Oba- ma’s Repub­lic Day visit last year when both sides is­sued the ‘Joint Strate­gic Vi­sion for the Asia-Pa­cific and In­dian Ocean Re­gion’, call­ing for a “roadmap that lever­ages our re­spec­tive ef­forts to in­crease ties among Asian pow­ers, en­abling both our na­tions to bet­ter re­spond to diplo­matic, eco­nomic and se­cu­rity chal­lenges in the re­gion”.

The roadmap text has been ne­go­ti­ated and ap­proved over the past year. The over­ar­ch­ing idea is to strengthen In­dia’s lead­er­ship and ca­pa­bil­i­ties in the re­gion. In­dia has ar­gued for clear ac­tions from the US in three broad ar­eas: po­lit­i­cal, mil­i­tary and eco­nomic.

While progress on the mil­i­tary front is the most pal­pa­ble with Carter force­fully push­ing the agenda and In­dia more will­ing to see the gain rather than just the pain, the same can’t be said of the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic fields where clear lead­er­ship is lack­ing.

From all ac­counts, John Kerry is not in­ter­ested enough in In­dia to push his bu­reau­cracy. In­dia doesn’t seem to an­i­mate him. He once kept a Cab­i­net min­is­ter wait­ing while he gave a sub­stance-free in­ter­view to an In­dian tele­vi­sion chan­nel.

Thus the re­cent flubs by both Obama and Kerry dur­ing the Nu­clear Se­cu­rity Sum­mit wrongly equat­ing In­dia and Pak­istan, and ig­nor­ing the South Asian nu­clear re­al­ity. Of­fi­cials who pre­pare the one-page brief for the pres­i­dent are re­spon­si­ble. But still, Obama is sup­posed to ‘get’ In­dia. This Amer­i­can at­ti­tude of brack­et­ing In­dia and Pak­istan in­fu­ri­ates New Delhi and feeds scep­ti­cism.

Over the last year, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has ap­proved nearly $1.7 bil­lion in mil­i­tary sales to Pak­istan, in­clud­ing F-16s and at­tack heli­copters. It’s another mat­ter the US Congress has blocked the F-16s for now. But the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s in­tent is clear.

The roadmap at­tempts to ad­dress this prob­lem through more con­sul­ta­tion, es­pe­cially on Wash­ing­ton’s Af-Pak pol­icy. In­dia, speak­ing more plainly than be­fore, wants its in­ter­ests ac­com­mo­dated. But for that, US pol­icy in South Asia has to be bet­ter har­monised.

On coun­tert­er­ror­ism, In­dian of­fi­cials have asked the Amer­i­cans see Pak­istan’s ter­ror­ist en­ter­prise in its to­tal­ity and not merely fo­cus on groups that at­tack the West.

On the eco­nomic front, New Delhi has asked the US to ac­tively work for In­dia’s mem­ber­ship in the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion fo­rum. Again, the lead has to come from Kerry. It seems the idea hasn’t re­sulted in ac­tion since Obama and Modi’s joint state­ment. The re­gional bu­reau deal­ing with East Asia is blasé about New Delhi’s in­ter­est.

Most of the ac­tiv­ity is in the realm of de­fence co­op­er­a­tion. The roadmap talks of mar­itime se­cu­rity and how In­dia and the US can en­sure free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and over flights through­out the re­gion, in­clud­ing South China Sea. The idea is to in­crease each other’s aware­ness of what’s hap­pen­ing in the oceans around, di­vide the work and share the in­for­ma­tion. More eyes mean more se­cu­rity.

The roadmap as en­vis­aged is mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial. An Amer­i­can trap, it is not. Even in the hard­est of times, In­dia didn’t walk into one. So why would it now as a stronger and more con­fi­dent na­tion?

And there’s al­ways a back-story

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