Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the United States later this month is an attempt to breathe new life into a relationship he stewarded so efficiently in his first term but curiously neglected in his second.
President Barack Obama also can’t be accused of giving India excessive attention for the past two years. Focused on crises ranging from Syria to Egypt and managing testy relations with Russia, he hasn’t heard the India story in a while. No senior White House official seems particularly keen to re-conjure his interest.
Much water has flown down the Potomac since Obama invited Singh as his first state guest in 2009 and the anticipation was high. But distraction and dysfunction on both sides dissipated the enthusiasm over time.
Bureaucrats have been managing the relationship – which arguably is still nascent in many aspects — but the lack of political direction has clearly hurt. Over the past two years, problems have grown and solutions have eluded the managers.
There is a sense of dismay in Washington that Manmohan Singh promised a kind of partnership but did not deliver. Instead, there is a harking back to the “old India” via such strategy papers as “Non Alignment 2.0” seen as India’s unofficial official foreign policy. Americans say this is a partial return to the times when both countries were reflexively suspicious of each other and unwilling to go the extra mile.
A keen analyst of bilateral relations explained it thus: “Success begets success but if the (India) account is not paying, no one is going to fight for it. There is so much scepticism about India across the government that those nominally in charge of relations feel, why should we bend backwards?”
The disappointment is sinking deep while scepticism is growing. There is a sense – fairly or unfairly — that not only has UPA 2 not done the “minimal” but it has even walked back on some issues.
Neither the executive nor the legislative branch of the U.S. government feels the deep motivation or excitement it did during Singh’s first term as prime minister when the momentum was high because of the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal.
Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser who could give the required push, came to her job with her own India experience at the United Nations where she served as the U.S. ambassador during the first Obama Administration. She told colleagues she had a “tough relationship” with her Indian counterpart over votes on Libya and Syria. As a result she is a “lot less patient” with India.
On Capitol Hill, home of the U.S. Congress, the disappointment is barely contained, mainly because India neither fulfilled the dream of a big business opportunity nor did it really join hands on the strategic front.
Still, both sides are giving it the old college try. Shivshankar Menon, India’s national security advisor, came here last month to discuss the framework for Singh’s visit. He met Rice, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and others to work out deliverables.
On their part, the Americans are keen to finalize the commercial agreement between Westinghouse and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India in time for Singh’s visit. After all, the 2008 nuclear deal remains Singh’s big achievement on the U.S. front, something on which he staked his government and won.
But real gains that were meant to flow from the agreement – reactors for U.S. companies and India’s inclusion in international export control groups – are now blocked for a variety of reasons. It is unclear whether the wrinkles can be smoothened enough in time for Singh’s visit to announce progress.
Structural problems on both sides have stymied movement on the nuclear reactor. The reality is neither side has signed a deal of this kind before. They are covering new ground and neither knows the best way forward. NPCIL hasn’t signed a commercial agreement in decades. For Westinghouse, India’s liability law, which puts the burden on the supplier, remains a major problem.
U.S. requirements on intellectual property protection of nuclear technology are hugely complex. The U.S. Department of Energy sometimes seems unaware of the interlocking regulations and requirements on private companies. As a result confusion reigns supreme – which Indian officials see as bad faith.
Marrying two bureaucratic systems on the nuclear issue has been difficult because there is no template for a reference just as there was none when the nuclear deal was thrashed out. Essentially new rules – and enormous patience – have to be developed but for that both sides need powerful senior officials dedicated to streamlining and controlling the process. That is not happening.
Details of who will do what are still undecided. Whether Westinghouse will build the entire reactor and hand over the keys to NPCIL or whether NPCIL will participate in the construction in order to gain experience on high efficiency reactors, is not clear.
Another area of cooperation that may get a boost with Singh’s visit is the idea of defence co-production and co-development. India wants to move away from a purely buyer-seller relationship and the Americans are agreeable.
The talks about talks are on but there are too many players in the field to get the process moving. On the Indian side, even though Menon leads the initiative, there is the ministry of defence, defence minister A.K. Antony who seems afraid to take any initiative, the Defence Research and Development Organisation and marginally, the external affairs ministry.
Getting all the players to think and act alike has been difficult. On the U.S. side, the initiative is led by Deputy Defence Secretary Ashton Carter who is battling the mountain of regulations created by the departments of Defence, Commerce and State.
It is possible the two sides may be able to announce a minor co-production venture of a weapon system in time for Singh’s visit. But the overall sense in Washington is that not much will happen until after the general elections in India. Only a new government can push things forward.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has repeatedly let events overtake him, especially on the foreign policy front. At times, he has presided over foreign policy shifts against his better instincts. But if he can assuage the anger in the U.S. Congress and get U.S. companies on India’s side once again on this trip, he will have accomplished enough.
This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive features here.
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