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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.