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Reading the tea leaves correctly

Reading the tea leaves correctly

There is an old joke which goes: when a diplomat says “yes", she means “maybe"; when a diplomat says “maybe", she means “no"; and if a diplomat says “no", she is not a diplomat. There is a modicum of veracity in this yarn, especially when it comes to relations between India and the US—both sides were so used to hearing the undiplomatic “no" that when it changed to a “yes" or a “maybe" they could not discern the message clearly.

This confusion is evident in the two extreme responses to the recently concluded second Indo-US strategic dialogue. On the one hand, analysts have exaggerated the importance of the dialogue, particularly the Hillary Clinton speech in Chennai, as setting the bilateral relationship on a higher strategic plane. On the other hand, some experts—despondent at the absence of any specific deals—have written off the encounter as a damp squib. The reality lies between the two.

While the Chennai speech certainly intended to flatter and even encourage India to take greater responsibility in the Asia Pacific and in South and Central Asia, it would be a mistake to assume that this signals Washington’s anointment of New Delhi as the regional satrap.

For one the speech lists several areas of convergence on which there are actually serious differences between India and the US, notably climate change, nonproliferation, human rights and development. For another, while the new mandate might have support in Washington and even Chennai, it will remain a non-starter unless it is also accepted in New Delhi. So far, the indications are that the Capital is unwilling to take on this role.

Besides, even if New Delhi was willing, it simply does not have the ability to carry out this ambitious mandate, which ranges from contributing to building a regional security architecture based on “rule of law, human rights and accountable governance" to denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and working together with Pakistan in Afghanistan or pushing for human rights in Myanmar. This is evident from India’s inability to provide leadership in the rapidly transforming Middle East, where it has more stakes and influence than in Asia Pacific.

A similar misinterpretation is apparent in assessing the Bush administration’s support for India’s rise. For instance, a close read of the so-called seminal article by Condoleezza Rice in Foreign Affairs in 2000 (now being compared with the Clinton speech) is revealing: there are only two brief references to India. The first identifies it as an emerging market. The second notes that it has the potential to be a possible counterweight to China. Reading into a single sentence—“India is not a great power yet, but it has the potential to emerge as one"—the basis for a grand vision of US-India relations is dangerously delusional.

Similarly, while the Indo-US nuclear deal and the 2006 Bush visit were touted by New Delhi as proof of a strategic partnership and made Bush a folk hero in India, the deal had far less import for Washington. In fact, even Bush’s own voluminous autobiography, Decision Points, makes a brief one-paragraph passing reference to India and the nuclear deal.

However, it would be equally misleading to interpret that Indo-US relations have lost traction. As this column noted last fortnight despite the absence of a major deal, the bilateral agenda has deepened and widened. In addition, there has been consistent, routine and even predictable forward movement on several issues of common interest.

What is clear is that non-partisan support now exists in both countries to further improve bilateral relations. What is still missing is a common grand vision of where this bilateral relationship should be in the coming decades. Here, New Delhi bears the onus of articulating its version of the Chennai speech to be delivered, perhaps, in Houston. Until then, reading the tea leaves correctly is crucial to ensure that a “yes" is not taken to be a “no".

WPS Sidhu is senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight

Comment at otherviews@livemint.com

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