By K.Sibal Former Indian Foreign Secretary March 2015
Prime Minister Modi has been quick to court both US and China. His first overtures were to China, prompted no doubt by his several visits there as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Chinese investments in his home state and his general admiration for China's economic achievements. Beyond this personal element, many in the government and corporate sectors in India believe that our politically contentious issues with China, especially the unresolved border issue, should be held in abeyance and that economic cooperation with that country should be expanded, as India can gain much from China's phenomenal rise and the expertise it has developed in specific sectors, especially in infrastructure. It is also believed that China, which is now sitting over $4 trillion of foreign exchange reserves, has huge surplus resources to invest and India should actively tap them for its own developmental needs. In this there is continuity in thinking and policy from the previous government, with Modi, as is his wont, giving it a strong personal imprint.
The first foreign dignitary to be received by Modi after he became Prime Minister was the Chinese Foreign Minister, representing the Chinese President. This was followed by up by his unusually long conversation on the telephone with the Chinese Prime Minister. Our Vice-President was sent to Beijing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Panchsheel Agreement even though China has blatantly violated this agreement and India's high level diplomatic endorsement of it only bolsters Chinese diplomacy, especially in the context of China-created tensions in the South China and East China Seas. Modi had occasion to meet President Xi Jinxing in July at the BRICS summit in July 2014, and this was followed up by the Chinese President's state visit to India in September 2014, during which the Prime Minister made unprecedented personal gestures to him in an informal setting in Ahmedabad.
The dramatics of Modi's outreach to the Chinese aside, his objectives in strengthening economic ties with China, essentially imply a consolidation of the approach followed in the last decade or so, with some course correction here and there. In this period, China made very significant headway in our power and telecom sectors, disregarding obvious security concerns associated with China's cyber capabilities and the links of Chinese companies to the Chinese military establishment. Many of our top companies have tapped Chinese banks and financial institutions for funds, and this has produced a pro-Chinese corporate lobby in our country. This lobby will obviously highlight the advantages of economic engagement over security concerns. The previous Prime Minister followed the approach of emphasizing shared interests with China rather than highlighting differences. The position his government took on the Depsang incident in May 2013 showed his inclination to temporize rather than confront. Externally, he took the line, which Chinese leaders repeated, that the world is big enough for India and China to grow, suggesting that he did not see potential conflict with China for access to global markets and resources. Under him, India's participation in the triangular Russia-India-China format (RIC) and the BRICS format continued, with India-originated proposal for a BRICS Development Bank eventually materializing. Indian concerns about the imbalance in trade were voiced, but without any action by China to redress the situation. India sought more access to the Chinese domestic market for our competitive IT and pharmaceutical products, as well as agricultural commodities, without success. Concerns about cheap Chinese products flooding the India market and wiping out parts of our small-scale sector were voiced now and then, but without any notable remedial steps. The Strategic Economic Dialogue set up with China, which focused primarily on the railway sector and potential Chinese investments in India, did not produce tangible results.
The Manmohan Singh government, despite China's aggressive claims on Arunachal Pradesh and lack of progress in talks between the Special Representatives on the boundary issue as well as concerns about China's strategic threats to our security flowing from its policies in our neighbourhood, especially towards Pakistan and Sri Lanka, declared a strategic and cooperative partnership with that country. During Manmohan Singh's visit to China in September 2013, we signed on to some contestable formulations, as, for example, the two sides committing themselves to taking a positive view of and supporting each other's friendship with other countries, and even more surprisingly, to support each other enhancing friendly relations with their common neighbours for mutual benefit and win-win results. This wipes off on paper our concerns about Chinese policies in our neighbourhood. We supported the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) Economic Corridor, including people to people exchanges, overlooking Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh and the dangers of giving the Chinese access to our northeast at people to people level. The agreement to carry out civil nuclear cooperation with China was surprising, as this makes our objections to China-Pakistan nuclear ties politically illogical. We also agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation on maritime security, which serves to legitimize China's presence in the Indian Ocean when China's penetration into this zone poses a strategic threat to us.
As a mark of continuity under the Modi government, during President Xi Jinxing's September 2014 visit to India, the two sides agreed to further consolidate their Strategic and Cooperative Partnership, recognised that their developments goals are interlinked and that their respective growth processes are mutually reinforcing. They agreed to make this developmental partnership a core component of their Strategic and Cooperative Partnership. The India-China Strategic Economic Dialogue was tasked to explore industrial investment and infrastructure development. To address the issue of the yawning trade imbalance, measures in the field of pharmaceuticals, IT, agro-products were identified and a Five-Year Development Programme for economic and Trade Cooperation to deepen and balance bilateral trade engagement was signed. Pursuant to discussions during the tenure of the previous government, the Chinese announced the establishment of two industrial parks in India, one in Gujarat and the other in Maharashtra, and the "endeavour to realise" an investment of US $ 20 billion in the next five years in various industrial and infrastructure development projects in India, with production and supply chain linkages also in view. In the railway sector, the two sides the two sides agreed to identify the technical inputs required to increase speed on the existing railway line from Chennai to Mysore via Bangalore, with the Chinese side agreeing to provide training in heavy haul for 100 Indian railway officials and cooperating in redevelopment of existing railway stations and establishment of a railway university in India. The Indian side agreed to actively consider cooperating with the Chinese on a High Speed Rail project. In the area of financial cooperation, the Indian side approved in principle the request of the Bank of China to open a branch in Mumbai.
The Modi government has agreed to continue defence contacts, besides holding the first round of the maritime cooperation dialogue this year, even though by engaging India in this area it disarms our objections to its increasing presence in the Indian Ocean area, besides drawing negative attention away from its policies in the South China Sea as well as projecting itself as a country committed to maritime cooperation with reasonable partners. The joint statement issued during Xi Jinxing's visit omitted any mention of developments in western Pacific, though it contained an anodyne formulation on Asia-Pacific. This becomes relevant in view of the statements on Asia-pacific and the Indian Ocean region issued during President Obama's visit to India in January 2015.
Our support, even if tepid, continues for the BCIM Economic Corridor. On our Security Council permanent membership, China continues its equivocal position, stating that it "understands and supports India's aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations including in the Security Council". It is careful not to pronounce support for India's "permanent membership". During Foreign Minister SushmaSwaraj's visit to China for the RIC Foreign Ministers meeting, China has maintained its equivocation, although the press has wrongly presented the formulation as an advance. China is openly opposed to Japan's candidature in view of the sharp deterioration of their ties. In India's case, it avoids creating a political hurdle to improved ties by openly opposing India's candidature. "A greater role" could well mean a formula of immediately re-electable non-permanent members, of the kind being proposed by a former UN Secretary General and others.
On counter-terrorism lip service is being paid to cooperation. On Climate Change, the two countries support the principle of "equity, common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities", although the US-China agreement on emission reduction targets has created a gap in Indian and Chinese positions, with the Modi government deciding to delink itself from China in international discussions to follow.
In diplomacy, once concessions or mistakes are made, retrieval is very difficult unless a crisis supervenes. The Modi government, for reasons that are not too clear, repeated the intention of the two countries to carry out bilateral cooperation in civil nuclear energy in line with their respective international commitments, which has the unfortunate implication of India circumscribing its own headroom to object to the China-Pakistan nuclear nexus, besides the nuance introduced that China is observing its international commitments in engaging in such cooperation. The calculation that this might make China more amenable to support India's NSG membership may well prove to be a mistaken one. Surprisingly, stepping back from the Manmohan government's refusal towards the end to make one-sided statements in support of China's sovereignty over Tibet when China continues to make claims on Indian territory, the new government yielded to the Chinese ruse in making us thank the "Tibetan Autonomous Region of the People's Republic of China" as well as the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs - as if both are independent of the Chinese government- for facilitating the KailashMansarovarYatra and opening the new route through Nathu La, even though this is not the most rational route because it involves a far longer journey, made easier of course by much better infrastructure. On receiving the flood season hydrological date the Chinese have stuck to their minimalist position.
On the sensitive border issue, the disconnect between the joint statement which repeats the usual cliches and the serious incident in Chumar coinciding with Xi's visit was obvious. China's double game of reaching out to India- with greater confidence now as the gap between it and India has greatly widened and it has begun to believe that India now needs China for its growth and development goals- and staging a provocation at the time of a high level visit, continues. This is a way to remind India of its vulnerability and the likely cost of challenging China's interests, unmindful that its conduct stokes the already high levels of India's distrust of that country. It went to Modi's credit that he raised the border issue frontally with XI Jinping at their joint press conference, expressing "our serious concern over repeated incidents along the border" and asking that the understanding to maintain peace and tranquility on the border "should be strictly observed". He rightly called for resuming the stalled process of clarifying the Line of Actual Control (LAC). While this more confident approach towards China is to lauded, we are unable to persuade China to be less obdurate on the border issue because we are signalling our willingness to embrace it nonetheless virtually in all other areas.
That Modi mentioned "India's concerns relating to China's visa policy and Trans Border Rivers" while standing alongside Xi Jinping at the joint press conference indicated a refreshing change from the past in terms of a more open expression of India's concerns. With regard to Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor that China is pushing hard, Modi rightly added a caveat by declaring that"our efforts to rebuild physical connectivity in the region would also require a peaceful, stable and cooperative environment". He also did not back another pet proposal of Xi: the Maritime Silk Road, which is a re-packaged version of the notorious "string of pearls" strategy, as the joint statement omits any mention of it.
Even as Modi has been making his overall interest in forging stronger ties with China clear, he has not shied away from allusions to Chinese expansionism, not only on Indian soil but also during his visit to Japan. After President Obama's visit to India and the joint statements on South China Sea and Asia-Pacific issued on the occasion which can be construed as directed at China, Foreign Minister SushmaSwaraj's recent visit there acquired more than normal interest in watching out for indications of China's reaction. Her call on Xi Jinping was projected, quite wrongly, as going beyond normal protocol, when in actual fact the Chinese Foreign Minister gets access to the highest levels in India during visits. Swaraj seems to have pushed for an early resolution of the border issue, with out-of-the-box thinking between the two strong leaders that lead their respective countries today. Turning the Chinese formulation on its head, she called for leaving a resolved border issue for future generations.
That China has no intention to look at any out-of-the-box solution- unless India is willing to make a concession under cover of "original thinking"- has been made clear by the vehemence of its reaction to Modi's recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh to inaugurate two development projects on the anniversary of the state's formation in 1987. It has fulminated over the Modi visit over two days, summoning the Indian Ambassador to lodge a protest, inventing Tibetan names for sub-divisions within Arunachal Pradesh to mark the point that this area has been under Tibetan administrative control historically. The Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister arrogantly told our Ambassador that Modi's visit undermined "China's territorial sovereignty, right and interests" and "violates the consensus to appropriately handle the border issue." China is making clear that it considers Arunachal Pradesh not "disputed territory" but China's sovereign territory. It is also inventing a non-existent "consensus" that Indian leaders will not visit Arunachal Pradesh to respect China's position. There is a parallel between China's position on the Senkakus where it accuses the Japanese government to change the status quo and inviting a Chinese reaction, and its latest broadside against India. this intemperate Chinese reaction casts a shadow on Modi's planned visit to China in May and next round of talks between the Special Representatives (SRs) on the boundary question. If without a strong riposte these planned visits go ahead we would have allowed the Chinese to shift the ground on the outstanding border issue even more in their favour. It would be advisable for our Defence Minister to visit Tawang before Modi's visit. A very categorical enunciation of our position that goes beyond previous formulations should be made by the Indian side. The Chinese position makes the SR talks pointless, as the terms of reference China is laying down cannot be agreed to by our side.
Prime Minister Modi, contrary to expectations, moved rapidly and decisively towards the US on assuming office. He confounded political analysts by putting aside his personal pique at having been denied a visa to visit the US for nine years for violating the US law on religious freedoms, the only individual to be sanctioned under this law. The first foreign visit by Modi to be announced was that to the US. Clearly, he believes that strong relations with the US gives India greater strategic space in foreign affairs and that its support is crucial for his developmental plans for India.
To assess the Modi government's policies towards the US, the results of his visit to Washington in September 2014 and that of Obama to India in January 2015 need to be analysed, keeping in mind the approach of the previous government and the element of continuity and change that can be discerned.
The joint statement issued during his US visit set out the future agenda of the relationship, with some goals clearly unachievable, but the ambitions of the two countries were underscored nonetheless. It was stated that both sides will facilitate actions to increase trade five-fold, implying US-China trade levels, which is not achievable in any realistic time-frame. They pledged to establish an Indo-US Investment Initiative and an Infrastructure Collaboration Platform to develop and finance infrastructure. An agreement on the Investment Initiative was signed in Washington prior to Obama's visit to India, but bringing about capital reforms in India, which the Initiative aims at, is not something that can be realised quickly. India wants foreign investment in infrastructure and would want to tap into US capabilities in this broad sector, but the US is not in the game of developing industrial corridors like Japan or competitively building highways, ports or airports. Cooperation in the railway sector was identified, but it can only be in some specific technologies because this is the field in which Japan and China are competing for opportunities in India, whether by way of implementing high speed freight corridors or building high speed train networks in the country. India offered to the U.S. industry lead partnership in developing three smart cities, even if the concept of smart cities is not entirely clear. Some preliminary steps seem to have been taken by US companies to implement the concept. The decision to establish an annual high-level Intellectual Property (IP) Working Group with appropriate decision-making and technical-level meetings as part of this Forum was done at US insistence as IPR issues are high on the US agenda in the context of contentious issues that have arisen between the US companies and the Indian government on patent protection, compulsory licensing and local manufacturing content requirements.
In his joint press briefing with Obama, Modi raised IT related issues, pressing Obama's support "for continued openness and ease of access for Indian services companies in the US market", without obtaining a reaction from the latter then or later when Obama visited India. On the food subsidy versus trade facilitation stand off in the WTO, Modi maintained his position firmly and compelling the US to accept a compromise. Modi's firmness on an issue of vital political importance to India showed that he could stand up to US pressure if the country's interest so demanded. He welcomed "the US defence companies to participate in developing the Indian defence industry", without singling out any of the several co-development and co-production projects offered by the US as part of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). Clearly, it was too early to conclude discussions on the US proposals before his September visit.
The more broad based reference in the joint statement to India and the US intending to expand defence cooperation to bolster national, regional and global security was, on the contrary, rather bold and ambitious, the import of which became clearer during Obama's January visit. While bolstering such cooperation for national security makes sense, regional security cannot be advanced together by both countries so long as the US continues to give military aid to Pakistan, which it is doing even now by issuing presidential waivers to overcome the provisions of the Kerry-Lugar legislation that requires Pakistan to act verifiably against terrorist groups on its soil before the aid can be released. As regards India-US defence cooperation bolstering global security, securing the sea lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific region is the obvious context. It was decided to renew for 10 years more the 2005 Framework for US-India Defence Relations, with defence teams of the two countries directed to "develop plans"for more ambitious programmes, including enhanced technology partnerships for India's Navy, including assessing possible areas of technology cooperation.
The US reiterated its commitment to support India's membership of the four technology control regimes: the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Wassenaar Agreement and the Australia Group, with Obama noting that India met MTCR requirements and is ready for NSG membership, but without setting any time-tables. An actual push by the US in favour of India's membership has been lacking because of issues of nuclear liability and administrative arrangements have remained unresolved until now and the US has wanted to use their resolution as a leverage. US support for India's membership of these export control organisations was reiterated during Obama's January visit, but how quickly the US will move remains unclear even after the political resolution of outstanding nuclear issues.
The US at one time described India as a lynchpin of its pivot or rebalance towards Asia. The underlying motivation behind the pivot and US interest in drawing India into this strategy is China, though this is not stated publicly in such open terms. India has been cautious about the US pivot towards Asia as its capacity and willingness to "contain"Chinese power has been doubted because of the huge financial and commercial interdependence forged between the two countries. India seeks stable and economically productive relations with China and has wanted to avoid the risk of being used by the US to serve its China strategy that raises uncertainties in the mind of even the US allies in Asia. However, under the Modi government, India has become more affirmative in its statements about the situation in the western Pacific and the commonalities of interests between India and the US and other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. The government has decided to "Act East", to strengthen strategic ties with Japan and Australia, as well as Vietnam, conduct more military exercises bilaterally with the US armed forces as well as naval exercises trilaterally with Japan. Modi has spoken publicly about greater India-US convergences in the Asia-Pacific region, to the point of calling the US intrinsic to India's Act East and Link West policies, a bold formulation in its geopolitical connotations never used before that suggested that India now viewed the US as being almost central to its foreign policy initiatives in both directions.
On geopolitical issues, India showed strategic boldness in the formulations that figured in the September joint statement. These laid the ground for more robust demonstration of strategic convergences between the two countries during Obama's visit later. The reference in September to the great convergence on "peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region"was significant in terms of China's growing assertiveness there. The joint statement spoke of a commitment to work more closely with other Asia Pacific countries, including through joint exercises, pointing implicitly to Japan and Australia, and even Vietnam. In this context, the decision to explore holding the trilateral India-US-Japan dialogue at Foreign Minister's level- a proposition that figured also in the India-Japan joint statement during Modi's visit there- was significant as it suggested an upgrading of the trilateral relationship at the political level, again with China in view.
On the issue of terrorism and religious extremism, India and the US have rhetorical convergence and some useful cooperation in specific counter-terrorism issues, but, on the whole, our concerns are inadequately met because US regional interests are not fully aligned with those of India. The September joint statement called for the dismantling of safe havens for terrorist and criminal networks and disruption of all financial and tactical support for networks such as Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the D-company and the Haqqanis, but the Taliban were conspicuously omitted from the list. In any case, such statements against Pakistan-based terrorist groups have been made before but are ignored by Pakistan in the absence of any real US pressure on it to curb Hafiz Saeed or credibly try Lakhvi despite repeated joint calls for bringing those responsible for the Mumbai terrorist massacre to justice.
We had a paragraph on Iran in the joint statement in Washington, clearly at US insistence, which the Iranians would have noted with some displeasure. The Modi government is also willing to accommodate the US on Iran within acceptable limits. While the US supports India's permanent membership of the UN Security Council, the support remains on paper as the US is not politically ready to promote the expansion of the Council.
At Washington, India and the US agreed on an enhanced strategic partnership on climate change issues, and we committed ourselves to working with the US to make the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December this year a success. This carried the risk of giving a handle to the US to ratchet up pressure to obtain some emission reduction commitments from India, encouraged diplomatically by the US-China agreement.
The unusually strong personal element in Modi's diplomacy towards the US came apparent when during his Washington visit he invited Obama to be the chief guest at our Republic Day on January 26, 2015- a bold and imaginative move characteristic of his style of functioning. That this unprecedented invitation was made was surprising in itself, as was its acceptance by Obama at such short notice. Modi and Obama evidently struck a good personal equation, with the earlier alienation supplanted by empathy. Obama made the unprecedented gesture of accompanying Modi to the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, perhaps taking a leaf from the personal gestures made toModi in Japan by Prime Minister Abe.
On the occasion of Obama's January visit, Modi has moved decisively, if somewhat controversially, on the nuclear front, as this was the critical diplomatic moment to work for a breakthrough to underline India's commitment to the strategic relationship with the US, which is the way that US commentators have looked at this issue. While in opposition the BJP had opposed the India-US nuclear agreement, introduced liability clauses that became a major hurdle in implementing the commitment to procure US supplied nuclear reactors for producing 10,000 MWs of power, and had even spoken of seeking a revision of the agreement whenever it came to power. During Obama's visit, the "breakthrough understandings"on the nuclear liability issue and that of administrative arrangements to track US supplied nuclear material or third party material passing through US supplied reactors, became the highlight of its success, with Modi himself calling nuclear cooperation issues as central to India-US ties. The supplier liability issue seems to have resolved at the level of the two governments by India's decision to set up an insurance pool to cover supplier liability, as well as a written clarification through a Memorandum of Law on the applicability of Section 46 only to operators and not suppliers. On the national tracking issue the nature of the understanding has left some questions unanswered; it would appear that we have accepted monitoring beyond IAEA safeguards as required under the US law. However, the larger question of the commercial viability of US supplied reactors remains, a point that Modi alluded to in joint press conference. On the whole, whatever the ambiguities and shortfalls, transferring the subject away from government to company level to eliminate the negative politics surrounding the subject is not an unwelcome development.
For the US, defence cooperation has been another touchstone for the US to measure India's willingness to deepen the strategic partnership. While the significant progress expected to be announced under the DTTI during Obama's visit did not materialise, some advance was made with the announcement of four "pathfinder" projects involving minor technologies, with cooperation in the area of aircraft engines and aircraft carrier technologies to be explored later. The government has already chosen for price reasons the Israeli missile over the Javelin that was part of the several proposals made to India under the DTTI. As expected, the India-US Defence Framework Agreement of 2005 was extended for another 10 years, without disclosing the new text. It is believed that India is now more open to discussions on the three foundational agreements that the US considers necessary for transfer of high defence technologies to India.
The US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region signed during the visit is a major document which in the eyes of some reflects India's move away from the shibboleths of the past associated with nonalignment and the obsession with strategic autonomy. Issuing a separate document was intended to highlight the growing strategic convergences between the two countries, with full awareness of how this might be interpreted by some countries, notably China. It affirms the "importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight throughout the region , especially in the South China Sea", while calling also on all parties to avoid the threat or use of force and pursue resolution of territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means in accordance with international law, including the Law of the Sea Convention. It speaks, in addition, of India and the US investing in making trilateral countries with third countries in the region, with Japan and Australia clearly in mind. This is a direct message addressed to China, reflecting less inhibition on India's part both to pronounce on the subject and do it jointly with the US, irrespective of Chinese sensibilities. Some Chinese commentary has criticised this effort by the US to make India part of its containment strategy, without taking cognisance of how India views China's maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean involving its strategic investments in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Pakistan and other countries. In the joint statement issued during Obama's visit, the two sides noted that India's Act East Policy and the US rebalance to Asia provided opportunities to the two countries to work closely to strengthen regional ties, in what amounted to an indirect endorsement of the US pivot to Asia.
Obama's visit also demonstrated the consolidation of the good personal rapport established between him and ShriModi, with embraces and first name familiarity- possibly overdone on Modi's part- walk in the park and talk over tea, all of which boosted the prime minister's personal stature as a man comfortable and confident in his dealings with the world's most powerful leader on the basis of equality. This personal rapport should assist in greater White House oversight over the Administration's policies towards India, which experience shows greatly benefits the bilateral relationship.
Counter-terrorism is always highlighted as an expanding area of India-US cooperation because of shared threats. The joint statement in Delhi spoke dramatically of making the US-India partnership in this area a "defining" relationship for the 21st century. Does this mean that the US will share actionable intelligence on terrorist threats to us emanating from Pakistani soil? This is doubtful. The continued omission of the Afghan Taliban from the list of entities India and the US will work against is disquieting, as it indicates US determination to engage the Taliban, even when it knows that it is Pakistan's only instrument to exert influence on developments in Afghanistan at India's cost. The subsequent refusal of the US spokesperson to characterise the Taliban as a terrorist organisation and preferring to call it an armed insurgency has only served to confirm this.
On trade, investment and IPR issues, the two sides will continue their engagement with the impulse given to the overall relationship by the Obama-Modi exchanges. On a high standard Bilateral Investment Treaty the two sides will "assess the prospects for moving forward", which indicates the hard work ahead. On the totalisation agreement the two will "hold a discussion on the elements requires in both countries to pursue" it, a language that is conspicuously non-committal. On IPRs there will be enhanced engagement in 2015 under the High Level Working Group.
On climate change, we reiterated again the decision to work together this year to achieve a successful agreement at the UN conference in Paris, even when our respective positions are opposed on the core issue of India making specific emission reduction commitments. While stating that neither the US nor the US-China agreement put any pressure on India, Modi spoke in his joint press conference about pressure on all countries to take steps for the sake of posterity. While finessing the issue with high-sounding phraseology, he has left the door open for practical compromises with the US.
As a general point, hyping-up our relations with the US is not wise as it reduces our political space to criticise its actions when we disagree. The previous government made this mistake and the Modi government is not being careful enough in this regard. Obama's objectionable lecture to us at Siri Fort on religious freedom and his pointed reference to Article 25 of our Constitution, illustrates this. He showed unpardonable ignorance of Indian history and Hindu religious traditions in asking us to "look beyond any differences in religion" because "nowhere in the world is it going to more necessary for that foundational value to be upheld" than in India. To say that "India will succeed so long as it is not splintered around religious lines" was a wilful exaggeration of the import of some recent incidents and amounted to playing the anti-Hindutva card by a foreign leader prompted by local Christian and "secular" lobbies. Reminding us of three national cinema and sport icons belonging only to minority religions- when their mass adulation is unconnected to their faith- was to actually encourage religiously fissured thinking in our society. On return to Washington Obama pursued his offensive line of exaggerating incidents of religious intolerance in India. On cue, a sanctimonious editorial also appeared in the New York Times. The government could not attack Obama for his insidious parting kick at Siri Fort so as not to dim the halo of a successful visit and therefore pretended that it was not directed at the Modi team. The opposition, instead of deprecating Obama's remarks, chose to politically exploit them against Modi, as did some Obama-adoring Indians unencumbered by notions of self-respect.
While giving gratuitous lessons on religious tolerance to the wrong country Obama announced $1 billion civil and military support to Pakistan that splintered from a united India because of religious intolerance in 1947 and has been decimating its minorities since. Obama has also invited the Chinese president to visit the US on a state visit this year, to balance his visit to India and the "strategic convergences" reached there on the Asia-Pacific region. Obama's claim that the US can be India's "best partner" remains to be tested as many contradictions in US policy towards India still exist.
The Modi government will face the test of managing closer strategic relations with the US, which are in part directed against China, and forging closer ties with China that go against this strategic thrust, besides the reality that China has actually stronger ties with the US than it can ever have with India, though the underlying tensions between the two are of an altogether different order than between India and the US.