When he comes to New Delhi this week, US undersecretary of state William Burns will have a lot of ground to cover. After the euphoria of the Bush years, the US and India have hit a new low in the Barack Obama age. No amount of wishing away can hide this fact. From Afghanistan to nuclear non-proliferation, the two countries agree only to disagree.
Burns’ visit is preparatory in nature, for the big dialogue is scheduled between US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and external affairs minister S.M. Krishna in the first week of June. This, in turn, is to be followed by Obama’s visit to India later in the year.
Expectations from the Burns visit should be tempered. After all, one preparatory visit for bigger events later cannot be expected to iron out all the differences that have emerged in recent years. The state of the relationship can be gauged from the fact that access to David Headley, a person known to have played an important role in the planning of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, had to be discussed at the highest level, between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Obama. In the normal course, this is something that can easily be handled far lower down the chain of officials. That says a lot about the so-called “strategic partnership” between the two countries. In any case, it is time some realism was injected into what are at best devalued words.
What are the prospects for enhanced Indo-US cooperation on terrorism and managing tensions in South Asia, two areas of joint concern? While the scope for this remains as large as ever, it is the differing approaches and interests of India and the US (or rather the present US administration) that have led to a cooling of relations. Even if this is sorted out, which seems unlikely as the US is already charting out a Pakistan-centric approach to managing the Afghan problem, there are bigger issues at stake. Pressure on India to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is one such point of discord. This approach has been tried repeatedly in the past by various US presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, without any avail. The US has not learnt anything from that experience. It is charting that course again. It will not help build a better relationship.
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