A Singh and a Miss

Even a state visit by India's prime minister can't save a relationship with Washington that's dangerously off-base.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Nearly four years ago, Barack Obama hosted the first state dinner of his presidency in honor of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. That event, however, was soon overshadowed by the exploits of Michaele and Tareq Salahi, two Washington socialites who crashed the dinner, embarrassing the White House and dominating headlines for days.

Sadly, this wasn’t so surprising: something always seems to be stealing the U.S.-India relationship’s thunder. On Friday, Obama once again hosted Singh at the White House, at a time when many Indians believe their country still sits on the backburner of U.S. priorities in South Asia. Several high-level visits from U.S. officials, including Vice President Joseph Biden in July, have done little to change that perception. Secretary of State John Kerry’s lackluster June trip to India, for example, prompted retired Indian ambassador K. C. Singh to warn that the current government in Washington "may have little appetite for accommodating Indian concerns." Nor did the meeting today, during which the two sides talked about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the U.S.-India relationship, assuage concerns: Obama opened his public remarks on the subject by asking for Singh’s "indulgence" and launching into a speech on Syria.

This is a far cry from the George W. Bush administration, when prominent pro-India voices like then Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill and then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns worked fervently to deepen ties with New Delhi — an effort that culminated in a landmark civil nuclear accord in 2008. Yet since Obama took office in 2009, and despite a roughly five-fold increase in bilateral trade over the last decade, many in the administration regard India as a complacent nation trying to punch above its weight. For its part, India resents Washington’s relationship with Islamabad, fractured as it may be, and U.S. attempts to broker talks with the Afghan Taliban. The occasional gaffe hasn’t helped matters either. New Delhi was infuriated by the video of a 2011 Chuck Hagel speech that surfaced this February. In the speech, given before he accepted the position of defense secretary, Hagel claimed India "financed problems" for Pakistan in Afghanistan.

So will U.S.-India relations remain second tier, like the opening cover band that never becomes a headliner? Not necessarily. Shifting strategic sands are positioning the relationship for an upgrade, and possibly even a spot on center stage. The United States is winding down its involvement in Afghanistan. The drawdown likely means Washington will spend less energy on Pakistan and redirect attention to India — while addressing India’s fears about the implications of the U.S. military withdrawal. The United States has also revised its "rebalance to Asia" strategy in ways that happen to be beneficial to India, including more maritime cooperation with Southeast Asia — a potential hedge against China. And while Washington continues to refer to India as a "key partner" in the rebalance, it no longer suggests an alliance — which New Delhi, with its strong legacy of nonalignment, would vigorously oppose.

These factors may be driving a series of conciliatory moves by both countries. India, after prodding from Washington, has reduced its energy dependence on Iran: once that country’s second largest oil importer, it is now sixth. Washington responded in June by exempting New Delhi from Iran-related sanctions. In mid-September, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter intimated that Washington is interested in liberalizing its arms export rules for India. According to Carter, such measures would give India "the same status as our very closest allies." Also in mid-September, Indian media reported that New Delhi will relax some of the liability laws that have made U.S. companies hesitant to invest in India’s nuclear sector.

Admittedly, improving the relationship will not be easy, as business ties between the two countries may suffer in the months ahead. Major Indian IT firms in the United States are angry about the changes to the U.S. H1-B visa program that make it more difficult for them to recruit Indian workers. Meanwhile, the U.S. private sector, one of the most vocal and important advocates of a stronger U.S.-India relationship, has of late taken a more critical line. Mark Elliot, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Intellectual Property Center said India’s counterproductive trade policies "are leaving us scratching our heads;" Linda Dempsey, vice president of international economic affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers, a D.C.-based advocacy group, said India’s policies are "a critical problem for business." Worryingly, the continued slowdown of India’s economy — its GDP grew at an anemic 3.2 percent in 2012, and the precipitous fall of the rupee in August sparked talk of an economic crisis — has caused India to retreat further inside its protectionist shell.   

Even if ties do improve under Singh, they could worsen if he leaves office in 2014. One of the top candidates for next Prime Minister of India is Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Because of his role in 2002 riots that left roughly 1,200 Muslims dead, the United States has denied him a visa. While that would probably change if he’s elected prime minister, Modi, who his critics call an unpredictable Hindu nationalist, is unlikely to pursue a cozy relationship with the United States. Now is the time for Obama and Singh to institute policies, or at least build goodwill, that shores up the relationship. Otherwise gatecrashers — whether in the form of Kabul, Modi, Indian trade policies, or the Salahis — will keep spoiling the party.

Michael Kugelman is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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