Making sense of Modi’s US policy

The new government seeks a strong strategic partnership with Washington – but with a hard-nosed approach


Srinath Raghavan | August 14, 2014

US defence secretary Chuck Hagel met PM Narendra Modi on August 8.
US defence secretary Chuck Hagel met PM Narendra Modi on August 8.

The back-to-back visits by the US secretaries of state and defence have set the ball rolling for prime minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming trip to Washington. The meetings with John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have also set the tone for the government’s engagement with the United States. On a swathe of issues from intellectual property rights (IPR) to defence, the Modi government has made it clear that while it seeks a strong strategic partnership with the US, it will not sell India’s interests short and that its approach will be hard-nosed.

The stance adopted by the government is unlikely to please observers in New Delhi as well as Washington who had fervently advocated and hoped that the new government would get into bed with the US. These professional boosters of US-India relations had excoriated the previous government for allegedly keeping America at arm’s length. They were shocked that India’s foreign policy was guided by such low considerations as its perceived national interests. The new government was expected to bid goodbye to all that.

Alas, these hopes have been undone. If anything, under prime minister Modi the Indian government has staked out a tougher stance vis-à-vis the US when it comes to preserving India’s irreducible interests.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the WTO negotiations over food subsidies. Despite the blandishments of the western countries, as well as their attempts to portray India as “obstructionist”, the Indian delegation refused to budge from its position. In justifying India’s stance, commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman used stronger language than her predecessors ever did. It is worth bearing in mind that the government’s position did not find favour with the loud pro-liberalisation lobby that has ardently championed the prime minister and that has advocated dismantling the subsidies regime. The government was rightly guided by concerns about the fallout of any such move on farmers. Besides, the government had to take into account its own political fortunes that are tied to the middle peasantry of north India. Not surprisingly, the prime minister candidly conveyed his views on the matter to secretary Kerry.

Equally open were the exchanges with secretary Hagel. While emphasising the importance of defence in Indo-US relations, the government has stressed that it is not interested in a mere buyer-seller relationship. The prime minister has mooted the idea of joint development and production of major weapon systems. This is an excellent idea – one that could secure significant transfer of technological knowledge to India.

We are already engaged in one such venture with Russia: the joint development of the cruise missile, Brahmos. And this seems the best way to enhance our indigenous base of defence industries. The government has already hiked FDI in defence to 49 percent. But this, or even a further increase, is unlikely to help much unless we embark on joint ventures for development and production.

The Obama administration seems open to this idea. Secretary Hagel has spoken of the possibility of jointly developing an advanced anti-tank missile. This is an interesting departure from its earlier stance. We may recall that when India tendered the deal of 126 fighter aircrafts, the US offered decades-old systems like the F-16 and the F-18. What’s worse, Washington expressed righteous indignation when these did not make the cut. New Delhi has rightly adopted a business-like attitude on defence ties. It will feature right on top of the prime minister’s agenda for his visit to the US.

On a wider strategic canvass, too, the government is intent on advancing Indian interests rather than privileging any particular partnership. The prime minister’s approach of dealing with each of the major powers on its own terms, and without reference to the others, harks back to one of the foundational principles of non-alignment. Although it is a red rag to many of the government’s supporters, this principle had served India rather well over several decades. And it is likely to remain so in the immediate future.

On the entire arc of crises currently playing out from eastern Europe through the Middle East to east Asia, India’s interests do not sit neatly with those of any great power. In eastern Ukraine, India has rightly acknowledged the fact that Russia has significant interests at play. Even as the crisis seems poised to escalate with the downing of the Malaysian Airlines aircraft, New Delhi has refrained from hastily condemning any side.

India’s balancing act, we are told, is going to become more difficult in the days ahead. No doubt because of some diplomatic nudging from the US. But New Delhi’s strategic partnership with Moscow is too important for it to join the anti-Russia chorus that is being orchestrated by the US.

Similarly, India and the US are not on the same page in the Middle East. New Delhi continues to be buffeted by consequences of successive American interventions in the region. The recent effort at rescuing Indians in Iraq underlined our vulnerability in the event of larger turmoil in the Middle East. With 7 million Indians residing in the region, India can scarcely afford to be blithe about the consequences of such unrest. It is hardly surprising that New Delhi has not supported American nostrums for Syria, Iran and other flashpoints.

In east Asia, by contrast, India and the US share broad strategic objectives. Neither of them would like to see the emergence of one preponderant power in the region. And both would like to have in place a security architecture that is open, balanced and capable of responding to potential crises in East and South China Seas. The problem, however, seems to be that neither country is quite sure of how far the other is willing to go in securing their common interests.

On the one hand, India is keen not to do anything that will make antagonism with China a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not least because there is much to be gained by keeping relations with China on an even keel. On the other hand, the Obama administration has shown little consistency and less credibility with its much-vaunted pivot to Asia.

The only way to break this impasse is to impart much-needed political momentum to the relationship.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems unable – not to say unwilling – to do so. The inability to appoint an ambassador to New Delhi underlines the drift in Washington’s approach to India. The ball is then with prime minister Modi. By all accounts, he is keen for a result-oriented visit to Washington. Whether or not he achieves this remains to be seen.

The column appeared in the August 16-31, 2014 issue of the magazine



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