Interacting with Delhi University students two days before the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the US, foreign secretary Shivshankar Menon signalled that he, and presumably the foreign office, was “nervous” about what the change would mean for India.
It is not clear what the foreign secretary meant, except that sustaining the relationship is a clear priority. Going by the none too pleasant associations with past Democratic regimes as well as the fact that the outgoing president, George W. Bush, had lent an unprecedented thrust to the bilateral relationship, these apprehensions are understandable.
Going by sotto voce pronouncements, it is feared that, at the minimum, the relationship may lose its momentum as the Obama administration busies itself with new priorities consistent with its electoral promises and, at the worst, return to where it was a few years ago. Still, some of India’s nervousness may be unnecessary.
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Unpredictability is not necessarily a bad thing. Undoubtedly, all the reference points have changed and the two countries are potentially poised to take their relationship to the next level. The new administration will definitely move the goal posts and initially at least, this will be more about form than substance. If viewed from the existing prism, this may come across negatively. It is actually anything but. India, which has emerged as an economic power in its own right, should demonstrate self-confidence, shed existing policy templates, and be prepared to think out of the box.
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The Obama administration will leave its stamp on government policy, but this is unlikely to be a radical overhaul. Claims during a campaign are largely a statement of intent: laying out what a president would want to do differently.
In Obama’s case, more so than ever before, the circumstances will severely limit the US government’s capabilities. Not only does he have to immediately address the rapidly worsening recession in the US, he has to move swiftly to defuse the violent confrontation in West Asia and address a deteriorating situation in South Asia in general and Pakistan and Afghanistan in particular.
Almost everything is on the front burner and an inexperienced President will be on test from the word go; multi-tasking will be a necessity, not an option.
There are broadly four areas where the Obama administration’s actions will have a direct or indirect bearing on India.
The first is obviously the promised economic stimulus package. India, like the rest of the world, has a huge stake in an early revival of the US economy. Even if the new administration does manage to get it off the ground immediately, it could be at least a year before it takes effect; till such time, both the US as well as the world will have to brace for the worst. For India, it clearly means adjusting to a more diminished market for both software and merchandise exports and lesser foreign direct investment inflows from the US. Second, as Mint pointed out in an editorial on Monday, the restoration of the US’ global primacy is closely linked with how quickly it can revive its economy.
At the same time, there are some immediate foreign policy concerns. Its strategy in West Asia will likely be to effect an immediate cessation of hostilities and thereby free resources to concentrate on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In an interview to Mint, former assistant secretary of state, Robin Raphel, outlined what could be the new approach to South Asia: a regional strategy. Which essentially means the US is looking for a more permanent resolution, which will immediately contain the growing threat of militancy and retrieve a seemingly hopeless situation in Afghanistan. The fears in India are that all this will be linked to the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Nothing of this sort is apparent right now.
After the highly successful conclusion of elections in the state, and the opening up of trade links with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, it will be very difficult for any US administration to stoke the issue afresh. The US, as Raphel explained, looks at India as a solution, just as it views Pakistan as a problem.
The third and fourth areas, trade and environment, should essentially be taken together. The new administration is unlikely to assume an insular posture in practice; rhetoric is something else and will often be directed at the domestic audience. To move the agenda forward, the new administration is expected to initiate some fresh proposals where it will give some ground, and take some. India, like Brazil and China, is at the centre of any effort to negotiate a new global trade or environment deal. The US will definitely push an agenda that serves its interests above all else and there is nothing wrong in that. It is something all countries do and should not be mistaken for obstructionism.
Finally, India has something most countries do not have: a very vibrant and active expat population in the US. Several of these non-resident Indians, or NRIs, have already been sounded out for roles in the new administration.
In the past four years, they have been very active proponents of India’s cause on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. While they are potential bridges, policy planners would be prudent to keep in mind that they are Americans of Indian origin.
In the final analysis, it is clear that India will have to prepare for a new beginning that will be fundamentally different in form. The country needs to handle this in a mature way. Impulsive reactions could spell disaster.
Anil Padmanabhan is Mint’s Delhi bureau chief. Respond to this column at email@example.com
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar/Mint