November 5, 2010


[If the Obama administration is considering “containing” China, winning wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, increasing leverage in Iran through a ‘carrot and stick’ approach and improving the economy back home, then the US needs to embrace India more affectionately.] 

When India was under British colonial rule, few Americans knew India well. However the great writer and poet Mark Twain was awed by India after his journey through it: “So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds. Nothing seems to have been forgotten, nothing overlooked," says Mark Twain in his seminal work ‘Following the Equator.’

When President Barack Obama begins his journey to India this November, he will do his best to seduce his Indian audience and so restore his prestige in world affairs. It is too early to predict how history might regard Obama, beyond being the first African American President. His place will be determined by his success on two fronts: first, rescuing the United States from the financial crisis, and second, the war in AfPak. Obama may be able to win those two wars by successfully courting India during his trip.

There is a sense of great geo-political need for the US to embrace India. It is understood that the US remains number one in world affairs only by maintaining a “Balance of Power” in which no single power in Eurasia and Asia Pacific emerges to disturb it. There has been just one other “Great Power”: the Soviet Union, which tried to dominate world affairs from Eurasia. Now the mantle has passed to Mandarin-speaking China.

If the Obama administration is considering “containing” China, winning wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, increasing leverage in Iran through a ‘carrot and stick’ approach and improving the economy back home, then the US needs to embrace India more affectionately.

What can India offer compared to other countries? India is close to Afghanistan, although it doesn’t share a border, and could offer more tactical support; the question is how? India is the only current ‘Great Power’ that wants the US to succeed in Afghanistan; this is the simple and blunt truth. If Afghanistan descends into chaos, it might destabilize India’s immediate neighborhood. It is in India’s national interest to help the US emerge victorious from the mess in Afghanistan.

Since 2001 India has donated $1.2 billion to Afghanistan's reconstruction, making it the largest regional donor to the country. India might not hesitate to act as a mediator between Iran and the US and help create an atmosphere like the one post-Taliban but pre-George W Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address.

The Iranian-American courtship that flourished briefly after the fall of the Taliban, and which climaxed during the December 2001 Bonn Summit on Afghanistan, could be revisited through India. Indian strategists have pushed their government to take a more demanding global leadership role, including acting as a positive third party mediator in Iranian–American relations. This could be encouraged by Barack Obama personally during his historic trip to India. Having Iran on board over Afghanistan might solve numerous strategic, logistical and tactical challenges faced by US troops and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. This could be the real surge.

For this to happen, Obama needs to reaffirm the Indian leadership’s rightful place at the high table of global affairs. There must be a paradigm shift in Indo-US relations. Indian leadership is looking for assurance from Obama on the expansion of the United Nations Security Council Permanent Membership to accommodate India as a permanent member.

The George W Bush administration came close to agreeing on this. By providing access to civilian nuclear technology to a state not a signatory of the NPT - India - the Bush administration acknowledged India as a de facto nuclear power, the first step towards attaining permanent membership of the UNSC.

However, history suggests the above scenario will not be reached so easily. To start with, Indo-American relations have been distant since India’s Independence in 1947. During the Cold War, India took the middle path of non-alignment but took a pro-Soviet stance which addressed the needs of its domestic audience, where the US was portrayed as a capitalist and imperialist power.

But with the end of the Cold War, Indo-US relations picked up - although there was a major glitch in the relationship after the Pokhran Nuclear Test conducted by India in May 1998. The US had always viewed India through a Cold War prism and the ‘Balance of Power.’ By hyphenating Pakistan (just 1/7th the area of India ) with India, and by considering India a weak socialist South Asian power, India’s role in global affairs was denied by the US. This skepticism changed during Bill Clinton’s historic visit to India in March 2000 and Indo-US relations moved onto the high road.

Indo-US relations increased momentum during George W Bush’s administration thanks to its neoconservative world view. The skepticism of the current US President’s world view has worried the Indian administration.

Although Obama calls himself the first ‘Pacific President’ and can claim a link to the Indian Ocean through his Kenyan father, his world view seems to be more influenced by the Boston Harvard Liberal outlook. The Indian administration has never been comfortable with this.

India’s administration has always been more comfortable with Republicans right from Independence. The conservative Ronald Reagan, the pragmatic George H W Bush, and the neo-conservative George W Bush never demanded anything from India, and left India to itself. However, the liberal John F Kennedy and the Ivy League intellectual Bill Clinton have demanded more from India: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation regime or Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

If one goes even further: even during the infant years of the Republic of India, the Indian leadership got along better with Republican President Eisenhower than with the Democratic Harry Truman. It was on Truman’s watch that the controversial Security Council Resolution 47 calling for a plebiscite in the state of Jammu and Kashmir was forced.

Even during the US Presidential elections in 2008, Indian strategic thinkers secretly prayed for John McCain’s victory over Obama, perhaps thinking of the fiasco of Indo-US relations in earlier Democratic Presidencies.

In many ways, India is comfortable with the world view offered by the former Governor of Alaska and presumed Republican  2012 Presidential hopeful Sarah Palin than by a community organizer from Chicago cum Harvard trained liberal lawyer like Obama.

Obama should use his trip to alleviate any fears in the Indian political leadership about his commitment to increase India’s role in world affairs. Obama will be the sixth US President to visit India and the third Democratic President. Earlier visits were by Presidents Dwight Eisenhower (1959), Richard Nixon (1969) Jimmy Carter (1978), Bill Clinton (2000), and George W Bush (2006).

It was during George W Bush’s previous visit that the accord for the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal was agreed. Obama’s India trip will count as a foreign policy achievement ahead of the 2012 Presidential elections. Obama will do his best to shed the “Carter Syndrome” of being dragged into a foreign policy fiasco. The trip will strengthen the strategic partnership initiated during George W Bush’s earlier Republican administration, which elevated India as a core strategic partner to counter the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere.

If Obama can get his relations with India right, it will be considered the finest hour of his rollercoaster Presidency.

The second problem confronting Obama is the US economy and how the US will extend its dominance into the 21st century. Though one of the best ways will be winning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the long term strategy has to tap the growing entrepreneurial energy emerging from India. With active co-operation with the Indian establishment and by recruiting the bright and talented youngsters from India, the US can still enjoy a near monopoly on the best research institutions. This might help the US to invest in clean –energy, benefiting the economy in the long run.

If this long term strategy is embedded in the Obama administration then the US can outclass China in the decades to come. This strategy worked during the Cold War. In fact, this was the decisive reason why the US was able to win the Cold War: its ability to attract bright and talented youngsters from all round the world including from India (despite India being considered close to the Soviet Union).

In conclusion, Obama’s grand strategy should have India as its nucleus.