Talking about US–India relations last year on the eve of Secretary of State John Kerry’s maiden visit to New Delhi in his official position, a particularly astute commentator had said this: “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.”
That was on June 23, 2013, and the astute commentator was yours truly. A year has passed since and there is a new government in place in New Delhi under a prime minister against whom Washington had a sort of restraining order for close to ten years barring him from coming within a few miles of the American shores. (Comedic exaggeration). Now that Narendra Modi is firmly ensconced in New Delhi and President Barack Obama is rapidly approaching his lame duck period, one can only wonder what it is that the two countries can do to live up to the frequently claimed promise as a “defining relationship of the 21st century”. In my judgment, not much. America and India are like that covetous couple who are eminently satisfied in the flirtatious phase of their relationship because they are both apprehensive about what unpleasant surprises taking it to the next level might spring up.
In a speech that was supposed to set the stage for his visit to New Delhi starting tomorrow, Kerry said at the Center for American Progress there is a “potentially transformative moment” in the bilateral relations. It is funny how there is always a potentially transformative moment between the two countries that never really rises to its potential to truly transform. The new narrative, which is quite like the old narrative, has it that India and America are “indispensable partners of the 21st century.” That is the basis on which Secretary Kerry is expected to try and build a strategic relationship. Of course, being a top American diplomat Kerry has to remember that the U.S. business interests are as important as strategic ones when it comes to any country, particularly India which still remains a highly exploitable market for U.S. corporations. Hence this series of caveats, “If India’s government delivers on its plans to support greater space for private initiative, if it creates greater openness to capital flows, it if limits subsidies and strive for competition, and provides strong intellectual property rights, believe me even more American companies will come to India.”
The primary purpose of the visit is for Kerry to co-chair the fifth US-India Strategic Dialogue on July 31 with his India vis-à-vis Sushma Swaraj. The visit is also expected to lay the groundwork for the upcoming summit meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Obama in September.
During Kerry’s last visit to India in the waning days of the Manmohan Singh government the strategic partnership between India and the United States had appeared much less grand than what was promised in 2009. It is not clear what it is that this strategic convergence between the two can actually mean in specific terms. I say that because while there is a broad, high-level meeting of strategic minds on both sides, it is in specifics such as Afghanistan, Iran, China, Russia, nuclear proliferation, trade and commerce issues and suchlike that the two find considerable divergence. They both know that diplomacy cannot be monogamous and is intrinsically promiscuous because countries have to balance so many complex global equations. India’s dealings with Iran is a case in point. I have written about that earlier. Another example that comes to mind is the way New Delhi voted in favor of a strongly-worded resolution on Israel by the United Nations Human Rights Council contrary to expectations in some quarters that the Modi dispensation might take a more pro-Israel stand over the Gaza conflict.
Rather than forever waxing eloquent about the transformative potential of US-India relations the two should peg it down and work on little less ambitious partnerships that make a quantifiable difference in a diversity of global issues. It is not for me to give a list of what those could be because no one pays me to do that. I could if I had to and was paid to do so. One that comes to my mind off the cuff is about how India and America can together transform the world’s health sector drawing on their well-known strengths.