U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (Portrait courtesy: www.state.gov)
As Secretary of State John Kerry reaches New Delhi tomorrow on his first visit in that position, the strategic partnership between India and the United States appears much less grand than what was promised in 2009.
You may not hear public candor from the two country’s diplomats in precisely those terms but there is a sense of drift and ennui in bilateral discourse. Merely calling the US-India relations the one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century, as President Barack Obama had done, does not necessarily make it so.
Kerry is going at a time when India’s polity is shifting into the preliminary stages of the 2014 parliamentary elections. Electoral calculations have a unique way of clarifying priorities in all democracies but nowhere more so than in India. So while Kerry’s Indian vis-à-vis Salman Khurshid will pay complete attention to his honored guest, one can be reasonably sure that the overriding theme for all members of the Manmohan Singh government from now on is the national elections.
Of course, it is not as if government ministers drop whatever it is that they are doing and run to attend to their own electoral plans. However, there is a natural slowing of envisioning grand ideas. At best, this would be a nuts and bolts visit for Kerry, particularly because the United States is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan and India is naturally concerned about the new emerging contours there.
New Delhi is closely watching the progress, or a lack of thereof, in the proposed talks between Washington and the Taliban. In the aftermath of the drawdown by the Western forces, what happens in Afghanistan is of direct and vital consequence for India. If the Taliban is emerging as a decisive stakeholder as evidenced by the US willingness to engage it seriously, then India has to bear in mind what that means for its own long-term influence in the region. After all, India has invested in excess of a billion dollars in help the government of President Hamid Karzai rebuild his country. New Delhi does not see the latest overtures to the Taliban as anything to applaud.
It is not my case that Kerry’s visit will pivot around the issue of Afghanistan but it has the most immediate relevance in both bilateral and multilateral contexts.
Shaun Tandon of the AFP asked a State Department official during a press briefing on June 20 about what the message to India would be about Afghanistan. Here is what the official said: “With respect to Afghanistan, we have long appreciated the role that India has played, particularly on the economic front, to support this regional integration vision. India has a very substantial economic assistance program. It’s one of the largest investors through its – the Hajigak iron ore project, and of course, it’s been a very strong supporter of the Istanbul process to encourage regional support for regional integration that will help the economic transition in Afghanistan. So I think that will be a focus. Certainly, I expect the Secretary and External Affairs Minister Khurshid to talk about the reconciliation process. We’ve always sought to be very transparent with India about that.”
The reply seems substantive at first but on reflection you would discover that it is mostly anodyne.
There are other issues such as the recent Indian court judgments on life saving drugs and the nuclear liability law, both of which have generally upset the Americans. A group of U.S. senators on Thursday wrote Kerry urging him to push New Delhi to protect US business interests in light of those two developments. India is expected to explain its position without really changing it in anyway.
The visit must be seen from the standpoint that both the Obama administration and the Singh government have their own reasons to focus elsewhere. For President Obama the time is to firm up his domestic legacy. His sanguine view of US-India relationship notwithstanding that relationship is not of any enduring value for his presidential legacy. Of course, unlike Obama, for whom this is the last term, Dr. Singh at least stands a theoretical chance of returning to power since there are no term limits in India. So he will necessarily do what is good in his and his Congress Party’s long-term interests.
Kerry will notice that there is discernible jadedness in the bilateral intercourse. To put it in purely sexual terms, he will likely discover that the foreplay, that happened before his time, was more exciting than the coitus. But then that is not such a bad thing as relations between countries go.