New Delhi Surprise
Beneath the smiles, India is not happy with Obama.
NEW DELHI—He may not know it yet, but Barack Obama’s much-heralded trip to India is already in trouble. The U.S. president is heading to Mumbai and New Delhi hoping to announce a number of economic deals he can tout back in Washington. He may well succeed, but he’s also likely to get an earful about an issue that is higher on India’s list of concerns: security. Over the last few weeks, Indian insiders — key serving and retired policymakers, strategists, and senior military personnel in New Delhi — have told me that a number of key misgivings are casting a long and disturbing shadow over the visit.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that Obama will be staying in Mumbai’s Taj Mahal hotel, where in November 2008, a handful of Pakistani terrorists held the city hostage and killed 166 people. Two years later, despite increased counterterrorism and counterintelligence cooperation, Indian officials complain that they’re not getting enough help on terrorism issues from their U.S. counterparts. The United States is still refusing to share vital intelligence information on terrorist organizations that may have links with Pakistan’s top spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, key Indian policymakers say.
Indian officials are also frustrated by Obama’s decision to hold a third strategic dialogue with Pakistan — and particularly with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief of staff — barely three weeks before his visit to New Delhi. The Indian government believes it has done all within its powers to reach out to the fragile civilian regime in Pakistan despite multiple rebuffs.
The timing and symbolism of the strategic dialogue was bad enough. Worse, however, was the announcement that the United States would provide Pakistan with yet another tranche of military assistance to the tune of $2.29 billion over the next five years. This was especially galling to the Indians, who see Pakistani military leaders suckering the Americans into letting them acquire weaponry that would only be useful in a conventional conflict with India.
Indian policymakers are also acutely disturbed by all the noises they hear about the Americans cutting a deal with the Taliban as they begin heading for the exits in July 2011. They point out that the Taliban regime, apart from playing host to al Qaeda, also harbored a host of anti-Indian, Pakistan-supported terrorist organizations ranging from Jaish-e-Mohammed to Lashkar-e-Taiba. Jaish-e-Mohammed, according to key intelligence officials in India, was responsible for the attack on the Indian parliament on Dec. 13, 2001. Lashkar-e-Taiba, in turn, is known to have masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Key military and intelligence officials in New Delhi argue that there is little reason to believe that the Taliban, were they to return to power, would not once again prove hospitable to India’s deadliest enemies.
Business groups aren’t happy with Obama, either. A number of important business organizations with a significant presence in the United States are frustrated and irritated with the president’s populist rhetoric on the vexed question of outsourcing. They are especially piqued because the administration’s key economic advisers have hectored India to open up its markets in a host of areas ranging from agricultural products to multi-brand retail trade (think Wal-Mart). Even the heads of major Indian corporations who had long been strong boosters of a robust Indo-U.S. relationship are now openly asking if the United States remains genuinely committed to free trade or if it merely mouths the principle as a slogan of convenience.
So will Obama’s visit go down in flames? The old non-alignment sentiment is far from dead in India: Limited progress will inevitably strengthen the hands of those who never had much faith in the Indo-U.S. relationship to begin with, or wish it ill for mostly ideological reasons. They will find ways in India’s noisy democracy to raise questions about the wisdom of pursuing a strategic partnership with the United States.
Here’s the good news: Those voices probably won’t carry the day. Unlike during the Cold War and beyond, the U.S.-India relationship now has strategic, diplomatic, and economic dimensions. It’s mature enough to take a few hits, and both sides realize that they have much to gain from working together. Let’s hope they can work past their growing pains.