India grapples with the Obama era
By M K Bhadrakumar
What prompted the spokesman of India's ruling party, Congress, to recommend
that the Bharat Ratna - the "Jewel of India" - be bestowed on George W Bush, we
might never know. India has conferred its highest civilian honor on only two
foreigners, one of whom was Nelson Mandela.
The Congress politician apparently got carried away on a balmy winter day with
nostalgia hanging heavily in the air, as he faced a select audience of Delhi's
elite, who formed the gravy train of India-US "strategic partnership" in the
Ironically, even as he spoke last Friday, a delegation was setting out from the
United States for India to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi, the great apostle of
non-violence, who inspired Martin
Luther King, who in turn remains a constant source of inspiration for US
President Barack Obama.
The bizarre coincidence was driven home when at a special ceremony at the US
State Department marking the visit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said,
"India is a reminder that the struggle for civil rights and justice has always
been and continues to be a global mission; it knows no borders."
The two unconnected events underscored the dilemma facing India's policymakers
as the Obama era gets under way. Indeed, it is an extraordinary statement that
the first American delegation to visit India after Obama took office should be
a "Gandhian" delegation. Is Obama "demilitarizing" India-US strategic
cooperation? "Mil-to-mil" cooperation was at the core of US-India relationship
during the past eight-year period. In recent years, India conducted more than
50 military exercises with the US.
All dressed up, nowhere to go
Yet a pall of gloom has descended on New Delhi's elite. There is a pervasive
nostalgia for George W Bush. The Bush administration officials claimed that the
US regarded India as the preponderant power in South Asia and as a key Asian
player that would shape up to be a viable counterweight to China militarily.
The expectation was that the US would extricate India from the morass of its
South Asian neighborhood by arm-twisting Pakistan.
Under constant encouragement from the Bush administration, the Indian elite
placed faith in the country's emergence as a global player. They began working
"shoulder to shoulder" with the US, just as Bush's officials urged. Now, Indian
strategists find themselves awkwardly placed - all dressed-up but there's
nowhere right now for them to go.
Three factors have shaken up the Indian complacency. First, Indian strategists
seriously underestimated the military stalemate that was developing in the war
in Afghanistan and the consequent acute dependence of the US on Pakistan's
cooperation. This may sound surprising, but the knowledge of Afghan affairs
remains shockingly poor among Indian strategists.
Two, Indian strategists underestimated the gravity of the global financial
crisis that erupted last year. They couldn't comprehend that the crisis would
fundamentally change the world order. Even hard-nosed Indian strategists placed
a touching faith in the "New American Century" project.
Three, the Indian establishment failed to grasp what Obama meant when he spoke
of "change". The Indian skepticism about Obama's capacity to change US policies
remained fairly widespread. The Indian establishment concluded that Obama would
ultimately have to work within the box, hemmed in by America's political,
foreign policy and security establishment. It failed to see that the US's
capacity to sustain its global dominance was itself weakening and that
necessitated radical changes in Obama's policies.
From this perspective, the past week offered a reality check. The visit by the
newly appointed US Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard
Holbrooke, to the region underscored that Islamabad's support for the US war
strategy in Afghanistan has become critical. The war is at a crucial stage and
salvaging it appears increasingly difficult.
More to the point, given the overall fragility of the political situation in
Pakistan, a stage is reached beyond which the US cannot "pressure" Pakistan.
Therefore, in a change of approach, the US will have no choice but to work with
Pakistan. In the coming period, as Holbrooke gradually opens the political
track leading to an Afghan settlement, need of Pakistan's cooperation increases
Meanwhile, the revelation that the US Predator drones operate out of Pakistani
bases underlines how closely Washington and Islamabad have been working. The
US's acquiescence in the release of AQ Khan revealed the great latitude towards
Pakistan's concerns. The Indian strategists who fancied that New Delhi was
Washington's preferred partner in South Asia are stunned. Clearly, India is
nowhere near as valuable an ally as Pakistan for the US for the present.
Looking ahead, Obama's decision on Wednesday approving a troop buildup in
Afghanistan constitutes a defining moment. He has put his presidency on the
firing line. From this week onward, Obama's war has begun. The war can well
consume his presidency. Either he succeeds, or he gets mired in the war. Yet,
the new US strategy is still in the making. Delhi takes note that it is at such
a crucial juncture that the Pakistani army chief, General Parvez Kayani, has
been invited to go across to Washington for consultations.
The message is clear: Washington will be in no mood to antagonize its Pakistani
partner and Delhi is expected to keep tensions under check in its relations
Dollar courting yuan
But there is another aspect in Obama's new foreign policy that worries India
even more. Obama's China policy renders obsolete the Indian strategic calculus
built around the US containment strategy. Hardly two to three years ago, the
Bush administration encouraged India to put faith in a quadrilateral alliance
of Asian democracies - the US, Japan, Australia and India - that would strive
to set the rules for China's behavior in the region.
According to reports, State Department officials had originally proposed that
India be included in the itinerary of Clinton's current first official tour
abroad, but she struck it out. As things stand, Clinton meant every word of
what she wrote last year in her Foreign Affairs article that "our [US]
relationship with China will be the most important bilateral relationship in
the world in this century".
In a major speech at the Asia Society in New York last Friday before embarking
on her tour of Asia, Clinton said, "We believe that the United States and China
can benefit from and contribute to each other's successes. It is in our
interests to work harder to build on areas of common concern and shared
opportunities". She argued for a "comprehensive dialogue" and a "broader
agenda" with China.
The Washington Post cited State Department officials as saying, "It is
symbolically important that Clinton is the first secretary of state in nearly
50 years to intensely focus his or her maiden voyage on Asia". The story is
easily comprehensible. The US needs to have new opportunities to export more to
China; it should persuade Beijing to accept a realistic dollar-yuan exchange
rate; and, it should convince China to keep investing its money in America. But
what is unfolding is also a phenomenal story insofar as a new chapter in their
mutually dependent relationship is commencing where the two countries become
equal partners in crisis. This was simply unthinkable.
Dennis Blair, the newly appointed director of national intelligence, in his
testimony before the US senate intelligence committee on January 22, struck a
fine balance when he said,
While the United States must understand
China's military buildup - its extent, its technological sophistication and its
vulnerabilities - in order to offset it, the intelligence community also needs
to support policymakers who are looking for opportunities to work with Chinese
leaders who believe that Asia is big enough for both of us and can be an Asia
in which both countries can benefit as well as contribute to the common good.
However, this is precisely where a serious problem arises for India. In the
Indian perception, South Asia and the Indian Ocean just aren't "big enough" for
India and China.
Dragon encircles peacock
This was rubbed home when Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Port Louis,
Mauritius, on Tuesday on the final lap of his latest odyssey to Africa. Hu
nonchalantly handed out a generous US$1 billion aid package for Mauritius,
which India traditionally regarded as its "sphere of influence" in the Indian
Ocean. No doubt, it was an audacious gesture by Beijing to a country the
majority of whose 1.3 million population are people of Indian origin - at a
time when China too faces an economic crisis and analysts say anywhere up to 40
million migrant workers may lose their jobs this year.
Arguably, Beijing regards Mauritius as a value-added platform between China and
Africa from where its entrepreneurs could optimally perform. But Hu has
convinced the Indian strategic community about China's "encirclement" policy
towards India. A leading Indian right-wing daily commented that Hu's visit was
"anything but ordinary ... It underscores Beijing's relentless thrust to secure
a permanent naval foothold in the western Indian Ocean ... That, of course,
would only come at the expense of the Indian navy, which has been the principal
external security partner of Mauritius all these decades".
It is precisely such hubris that gets punctured by the shift in the Obama
administration's new priorities in the Far East and southwest Asia. A difficult
period of adjustment lies ahead for Indian policymakers. India needs good
relations with the US. At any rate, the India-US relationship is on an
irreversible trajectory of growth. There is a "bipartisan" consensus in both
countries that the relationship is in each other's vital interests. But the
US's current strategic priorities in the region and India's expectations are
diverging. Given the criticality of Pakistan in the US geo-strategy, Obama
administration will be constrained to correct the Bush administration's "tilt"
New Delhi pulled out all the stops when rumors surfaced that Holbrooke's
mandate might include the Kashmir problem. Obama paid heed to Indian
sensitivities. But at a price. It compels India to curtail its own excessive
instincts in recent years to seek US intervention in keeping India-Pakistan
tensions in check.
In short, New Delhi will have to pay much greater attention to its bilateral
track with Pakistan. And, of course, Pakistan will expect India to be far more
flexible. Rightly or wrongly, Pakistan harbors a feeling that India took
unilateral advantage from the relative four-year calm in their relationship
without conceding anything in return.
In a sensational interview with India's top television personality, Karan
Thapar, on Thursday night, Pakistan's former foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud
Kasuri confirmed what many in New Delhi suspected, namely, that through back
channel diplomacy, Islamabad and New Delhi had reached a broad understanding on
contentious issues such as Sir Creek, Siachen and Kashmir as far back as two
The Indian prime minister was expected to visit Pakistan to conclude some of
the agreements but the Indian side apparently began developing cold feet and it
is "sheer bad luck", as Kasuri put it, that the momentum dissipated.
To quote Kasuri, "If the Prime Minister of India had come when we [Pakistan]
thought he would, we would have actually signed it, and that would have created
the right atmosphere for resolution of other disputes, particularly the issue
of J&K [Jammu and Kashmir]. We needed the right atmosphere."
In other words, there is always a lurking danger that at some point, Holbrooke
may barge into the Kashmir problem by way of addressing the core issues of
regional security. The Bush administration had been kept constantly briefed by
New Delhi on its back-channel discussions with Islamabad regarding Kashmir.
Retracting from any commitments given to Pakistan becomes problematic at this
At the same time, the Indian government has done nothing so far to sensitize
domestic public opinion that such highly delicate discussions involving joint
India-Pakistan governance of the Kashmir region have reached an advanced stage.
Thus, in a manner of speaking, with Holbrooke's arrival in the region this past
week, the clock began ticking on the Kashmir issue. Pakistan will incrementally
mount pressure that Obama must insist on India moving forward on a settlement
of the Kashmir problem in the overall interests of peace and regional
And New Delhi will remain watchful. Holbrooke's visit to New Delhi on Monday
was kept low-key. The Indian media fawned on any mid-level official calling
from the Bush administration, but Holbrooke was tucked away as if under
quarantine. And no wonder; there could be many among New Delhi's elite who feel
nostalgic for the tranquility and predictability of the Bush era.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.