Neglected India: Why Is Washington Ignoring the World’s Largest Democracy?

On a balmy day in February last year, I sat down for lunch with one of India’s most prominent political columnists at the India International Centre in New Delhi, a place where left-wing academics, journalists, and Congress Party supporters like to congregate. My friend, however, is a lady whose politics lean to the right, and I often consulted her for advice on political matters. She also happens to be very pro-American. So I asked her what she thought of the US-India relationship under President Obama. “It might be time for us to distance ourselves a bit from Washington,” she mused. Putin’s Russia was mentioned as a possible friend, as were cultural links to Ahmadinejad’s Iran. I almost choked on my tea. Was she serious?

The short answer is yes, she was—and for good reason.

The prevailing wisdom inside the Beltway today is that there are inexorable forces pulling the world’s two largest democracies toward each other. These forces include shared values (democracy), a common language (English), and coincidental strategic goals in Asia-Pacific (containing Communist China). However, the logic that assumes a stronger bond is inevitable believes also that it’s better for Washington to throw its energies into strengthening relationships with nations in Asia-Pacific that don’t share US values or strategic goals (China, North Korea, Pakistan) because India will continue to drift closer to Washington as a matter of course. It has nowhere else to go. And as everyone knows, negotiating with New Delhi’s famously argumentative and long-winded politicians—who also face domestic, democratic political constraints—is always a trial.

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But things aren’t going exactly as planned. It’s been more than two and a half years since the Obama administration took office, and there’s not a single major India initiative on the table. If anything, the two parties have disagreed more than they’ve agreed in public. In what was billed as a major policy speech in Chennai in July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that the US and India “from time to time, disagree as any two nations or, frankly, any two friends inevitably will do” and entreated India to “lead” in East Asia. That’s hardly a vision for the future, nor a ringing endorsement of an intensified bilateral policy.

While it remains standoffish with India, the Obama administration has been obsequious with China, although this approach has yielded little. Beijing is flexing its military muscles more strongly than ever, claiming vast regions of the South China Sea as territorial waters, harassing Japanese and Filipino naval vessels, picking diplomatic fights with Vietnam, exerting its influence over Burma and Nepal, shielding North Korea at the United Nations after Pyongyang’s deadly attacks on South Korea, and more. As for other areas on which the State Department spends more effort than it does on India, North Korea continues to militarize and threaten South Korea and Japan, and Burma’s junta is tightening its grip on power.

Such developments have alarmed Asia’s democracies (and even some of its autocracies, like Vietnam), who have asked the US to change its diplomatic tack in the region. Which makes it a good time to ask some basic questions: Where has the US-India bilateral relationship gone off track, and why are we not devoting more resources to New Delhi, and fewer to places like Beijing?

Many Indian policymakers had high hopes for President Obama. As a senator, Obama kept a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi in his office and spoke of his affinity for India. During the presidential campaign, he emphasized that he’d like to build a “close strategic partnership” with the world’s largest democracy. Many in India’s ruling Congress Party thought they’d found a kindred spirit: a left-leaning big spender who thought that America should take a backseat in foreign affairs and stop dictating terms to its friends, both new and old. That’s the governing philosophy that the Congress Party has used to rule India since its independence from Britain, with only a brief interruption in the 1990s when the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party took power.

Yet India’s rambunctious and free media sensed trouble from the get-go. The Business Standard predicted that Obama would be more consumed with domestic financial problems than foreign policy, worried about the president’s anti–free-trade record, and hoped that the new administration wouldn’t be “misguided” on issues like Pakistan. The Times of India fretted about Obama’s strident anti-nuclear stance and what it would mean for the civil nuclear deal India forged under former President George W. Bush. The business daily Mint dubbed the president “enigmatic” and mused about his ability to prioritize his policy goals.

The press was right. Despite assertions to the contrary by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—a steadfast India supporter—when it came to America’s foreign policy in Asia-Pacific, the president’s priorities could be summed up in one word: China. On his inaugural visit to the region as president in November 2009, the US leader spent four days in mainland China, issued a joint statement that said Beijing was key to “peace, stability, and development in South Asia,” and skipped India altogether. There was talk of a Group of Two meeting between the US and China that would supplant the Group of 20 (which India belongs to). Obama talked repeatedly of China as a “strategic partner” that the US needed to solve almost all its problems in Asia-Pacific. People like my friend in Delhi wondered, quite reasonably, when the president had last said that of India.

Obama also misstepped on India’s biggest priority: Pakistan. India views Islamabad as the main threat to its security—and understandably so, given the country’s huge nuclear arsenal, territorial claims to Jammu and Kashmir, and alleged involvement in the three-day massacre in Mumbai in 2008, a terrorist attack that killed one hundred and sixty-six people, as well as other brutalities. Pakistan’s security forces maintain links to terror groups headquartered openly in some of Pakistan’s major cities, and the country’s leadership is cozying up to China. India wants a close and constant dialogue with the US on how to handle Pakistan. Yet shortly after taking office, Obama appointed special envoy Richard Holbrooke to a new “Af/Pak” portfolio that excluded New Delhi. Holbrooke, who passed away last year at the age of sixty-nine, was known around the South Block as a man who dictated to India and rarely listened.

Afghanistan soon turned into another point of contention. India has invested a good deal of blood and treasure there in an effort to curb Pakistan’s influence over the country and support US efforts. A suicide bomber attacked the Indian Embassy in Kabul in 2008, killing more than fifty staffers and injuring more than one hundred and forty. Another attack hit the same embassy the following year, killing seventeen and wounding more than seventy. Yet New Delhi often complains that it’s shut out of America’s Afghanistan planning—another Holbrooke legacy. (Clinton tried to calm India’s fears in July of this year, telling a crowd in Chennai that “reconciliation . . . will depend on the participation and support of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including both Pakistan and India.”) The Obama administration’s pledge this year to pull out combat troops by 2014 stoked further alarm.

Then the Obama administration backtracked on other Indian priorities: in particular, nuclear-power and climate-change policies.

Little wonder that official summits haven’t gone so well: two years ago, President Obama threw a largely symbolic state dinner—the first of his administration—for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but the visit drew more attention for the Salahi party crashers than for any policy breakthroughs. The first US-India Strategic Dialogue (started years after a similar program with China) featured lots of sound bites, but little substance. The president’s visit to India last November focused mostly on one-off trade deals and was seen largely as a foreign escape from a midterm congressional election debacle back home. Clinton’s July visit was simply forgettable.

US-based India watchers deny that Washington deserves all the blame for the bilateral stall—and they have a point too. The 2008 civil-nuclear deal signed by the Bush administration and seen as a key achievement of warming ties between the two countries hasn’t been fully implemented, thanks to legislative intransigence in New Delhi that Prime Minister Singh could—but hasn’t—push to overcome. India snubbed the US when it doled out a major fighter-jet contract earlier this year. The country has abstained from military intervention in Libya, alongside Germany; stalled for years on opening up key sectors for foreign investment; forged closer ties with Burma’s junta, inking major trade deals; and called for an end to dollar dominance in the global monetary order. These are hardly actions of a close US ally.

Yet India has never been the party to initiate closer ties, so why should Washington expect it to change tack now? India’s foreign-policy establishment for decades preached a “non-aligned” policy that sided more often with the former Soviet Union than it did with Washington. Closer US-India ties only tentatively restarted under the Clinton administration, and were pulled significantly closer under President Bush. But that’s a relatively new development in the sweep of modern, independent Indian history. If anything, India’s political reformers and pro-American voices need US support to bolster their own credibility within the Indian government, which remains largely suspicious of America’s intentions in the region.

I wonder what would have happened if the Obama team had presented the Congress Party–led government with a “big idea” early in that government’s second term, in 2009, such as a free-trade agreement or a commitment to integrate India more closely on a military level with Japan, Australia, and other Asia-Pacific democratic allies? Prior to that election, Prime Minister Singh was hampered by his leftist, mostly anti-American allies—yet he still managed to forge the civil-nuclear deal with President Bush that vaulted US-India ties to a new level. After the 2009 election, Singh and Congress won a resounding victory and jettisoned those parties. It was an unusual political opening that the Obama administration simply missed, instead choosing to waste its affections on China.

Obama’s record suggests he never intended to capitalize on these sorts of opportunities. He ran for office on a protectionist platform, and has picked free-trade disputes with some of America’s closest and oldest allies. A free-trade deal with New Delhi would elicit howls of disapproval from the president’s union allies. As for military spending, the president sees it more as a budget item that needs trimming than an area for expansion—and he’s spent so much money on domestic stimulus packages that there’s little left to spend on new military initiatives, anyway. That means many of his initial entreaties to New Delhi were likely just words, with little real intent behind them.

Now that both national leaders are weighed down in domestic messes, it’s unlikely that either will devote significant time to the relationship. In India, the Congress Party faces a series of domestic political scandals that have severely damaged its governing prestige, from the Commonwealth Games cost-overrun debacle to a $40 billion 2G telecom auction scandal to a pay-for-votes uproar. In August, an elderly activist, Anna Hazare, mounted a lengthy hunger strike to protest government corruption. His campaign struck a popular chord and has obliterated what was left of the Singh government’s credibility. Only the ineptitude of opposition parties keeps Congress in power. In the US, President Obama remains consumed with the fallout of his Keynesian spending program, which has mired the country in debt, stalled job creation, and created a political revolt on the right that keeps growing stronger. As both countries increasingly look inward, opportunities are missed.

The irony of the US-India bilateral stall is that it’s happening at a time when the rest of Asia’s democracies are trying to pull closer to Washington in the face of ever more belligerent behavior from China. It’s also occurring when both the US and India could use a mutual boost to each other’s flagging economies. And despite the political problems, both Americans and Indians continue to view each other favorably, when polled. As former State Department official Kelley Currie, an old Asia hand, told me in July, “The possibilities with India are much broader and much more open; the sky’s really the limit. We don’t have the kind of hard, lack of strategic trust that will keep US-China relations from going beyond a certain point.”

All the ingredients are there for a closer partnership, then, except where it matters: in the political halls of power. President Obama’s focus has already turned to the 2012 elections; Prime Minister Singh is unlikely to accept another political job after this one, especially after the Hazare embarrassment. So for now, at least, the US-India bilateral relationship will creep forward at a glacial speed, until new leadership rises to power in both nations. Let’s hope that it’s not a long wait.

Mary Kissel is an editorial board member of the Wall Street Journal.

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