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    South Asia
     Nov 26, 2009
India lays to rest a Bush-era ghost
By M K Bhadrakumar

The African thinker Theophile Obenga has a thesis that it is only through a profound "intellectual mutation" that the present with its attendant modes of cognition and perception can be truly understood, which in turn involves a revalorization of one's intellectual legacy. India is on one such root expansion of thought, breaking out of a cognitive closure.

Obenga argued that by way of its "intellectual mutation", Africa should travel all the way to the flowering of hominization in ancient Egypt - via the rock paintings of the Grotto-Apollo in Namibia dating back to 28000 BC. Fortunately for India, the perceptual matrix involves far less reaching back - a mere eight years encompassing the George W Bush era.

However much New Delhi tried to convince Washington in the

  

recent months that the United States still had spunk in it as the lone superpower, the Americans remain unconvinced. Unsurprisingly, the most bizarre statement from the American side during Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's entire visit this week to the US came from President Barack Obama's "AfPak" aide, Richard Holbrooke.

While Obama kept harping on the special importance of according to Manmohan the honor of being the first foreign dignitary to Washington on a "state visit" during his presidency, Holbrooke took the opposite direction to plead with the Pakistanis not to take it to heart.

Holbrooke held a two-hour press briefing to massage the Pakistani ego. He had this to say:
And no one in Pakistan, and no one in any other country, should read this [Manmohan's state visit] as a diminution of the importance we attach to them. It's entirely appropriate that someone has to have the first trip. And - it usually used to be in the past, a European ally, but they come over in informal trips ... It [the visit] in no way should be read as a diminution.
True, Delhi repeatedly ignored Holbrooke's urge to visit India. Delhi seems to think he is an adventurous climber in a pack of high-flying officials dealing with the Afghan problem in Washington, but on Monday he settled scores.

Ironically, though, he ended up highlighting Obama's Achilles' heel. Holbrooke virtually confirmed media reports that Saudi intelligence is engaging the hardcore Taliban leader, Mullah Omar. He admitted, "We would be supportive of anything that the kingdom chose to do in this regard."

The US has fought not fewer than 100 wars. But this is the first time Saudi Arabia has worked on an exit strategy for the US. To be sure, Manmohan's main problem also, as he arrived in Washington on Monday, was that compared to his previous visit in 2005, he was dealing with a US vastly denuded of its global influence.

The joint statement issued after the talks reaffirmed the US-India "global strategic partnership"; the deepening bilateral cooperation between the world's two largest democracies across a broad spectrum of human endeavors"; "common ideals and complementary strengths"; "the shared values cherished by their peoples and espoused by their founders". No reason to disbelieve any of this.

Yet Manmohan failed to realize the main objective of his visit, namely, the "operationalization" of the controversial US-India civilian nuclear deal concluded in the the Bush era. A gnawing worry remains as regards Obama's grit to implement the deal.

The deal was a leap in faith, promising India access to advanced ENR (enrichment and reprocessing) technologies. But negotiations are proving difficult. Delhi did everything to "incentivize" the American side by offering two sites where nuclear power plants imported from the US would be set up and showing willingness to legislate that the liability of the US companies would be limited in the event of accidents involving imported American reactors.

But the US side is just not ready to conclude an agreement on ENR. It is not that Obama is retracting. The US compulsions are twofold: any ENR agreement needs to be situated within the new nuclear non-proliferation architecture that the world community may agree on, and secondly, it may complicate Obama's strategy with regard to the analogous issue of Iran's right to have reprocessing technology.

On balance, Washington lacks the strength to assert it will have an ENR with India and will still enforce its writ on the non-proliferation regime.

Overarching this, Delhi harbors disquiet about Obama's "reset" of regional policies. The US's Afghan strategy remains predicated on Pakistan's cooperation. Washington needs a collegiate Beijing to cope with the crisis in the US economy, which precludes the scope for "containment strategy" towards China. In sum, Delhi feels disheartened that from a tall pedestal as an Asian "balancer" on which Bush installed India, Obama brings it down as a sub-regional power.

However, Manmohan's visit has been a creditable success. India and the US launched a wide-ranging counter-terrorism cooperation initiative and agreed on the "absolute imperative" to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Mumbai terrorist strikes last year.

Equally, the Obama-Manmohan joint statement echoes the Indian charge about Pakistani doublespeak on terrorism. It expressed "grave concern" about a continuing terrorist threat "emanating from India's neighborhood" and agreed that "resolute and credible steps must be taken to eliminate safe havens and sanctuaries that provide shelter to terrorists and their activities ... [which] undermine security and stability in the region and around the world."

Again, the US "appreciated" India's role in Afghanistan and "agreed to enhance their respective efforts", whereas Pakistan clamors for a roll back of the Indian presence in Afghanistan. Obama skirted India-Pakistan relations, whereas Islamabad alternatively beseeches and threatens that unless the US mediates on the Kashmir problem, Pakistan will not cooperate. Manmohan would have the double satisfaction that the US-China joint statement calling for mediation in India-Pakistan relations has been nullified.

An innocuous-looking reference in the joint statement may hold a vital clue, where the two leaders committed to "continue to pursue mutually beneficial defense cooperation", including "trade and technology transfer and collaboration". In a broader context, the US agreed to strengthen high technology trade "in the spirit of their strategic dialogue and partnership". Evidently, the US seriously intends to participate in India's massive arms procurement program. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called on Manmohan.

To quote Manmohan, "We have an expanding area of defense collaboration including the possibility of procurement of defense equipment from the US. Our domestic private sector defense suppliers are now allowed to have up to 26% foreign investment, opening a new avenue for Indo-US collaboration in defense-related activities."

Delhi can be trusted to undertake a thorough stocktaking of the US-India relationship after Manmohan's return. The compulsion to recalibrate India's single-most important relationship is at once obvious. The dramatic transformation of the relationship in the Bush era bred illusions. At the same time, the Delhi elite still believes that while Pakistan and China might be the US's current priorities, India is bound to figure in the long run as a top priority.

Obama made amends to the glaring omission of India in his Asia-Pacific speech delivered at Tokyo en route to China. He said:
India today is a rising and responsible global power. In Asia, Indian leadership is expanding prosperity and the security across the region. And the United States welcomes and encourages India's leadership role in helping to shape the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Asia.

Beyond Asia, as the world's largest multiethnic democracy, as one of the world's fastest-growing economies, and as a member of the G20 [Group of 20], India will play a pivotal role in meeting many challenges we face today. And this includes my top economic priority, creating good jobs with good wages for the American people.
The resounding words should allay Indian elites' apprehensions regarding the drift of the US-India partnership in Obama's watch. Actually, Obama offers a mature relationship, although it is not sexy enough for the daydreamers fixated on India's "great power status". What he offers is a forward-looking relationship that is sustainable, if only the Delhi elites had the requisite self-confidence regarding their country's strengths and options in an increasingly polycentric world order.

Manmohan is ahead of most Indians in realizing the country's inherent strength. As he put it:
Economic relationships are the bedrock on which social, cultural and political relationships are built. A strategic relationship that is not underpinned by a strong economic relationship is unlikely to prosper. On the other hand, a web of economic relationships intensifies other business-to-business and people-to-people contacts, promoting a deeper and better understanding ... That is the kind of relationship we wish to see with this great country, the United States.
The single-most enduring outcome of Manmohan's visit could be that the process of laying to rest the ghost of the Bush era, which kept butting into the Indian elitist consciousness, is finally being laid to rest.

India elites need to wake up to the Obama era, jettisoning false hopes and expectations that do not match the US's declining power and influence as a superpower. Manmohan's brief sojourn in Washington has kick-started this process. It needed an African-American president to bring home to the Indians Obenga's wisdom, which should have been easily accessible to an ancient civilization.

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.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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