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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 49, November 26, 2011

India Delivers, It’s Obama’s Turn Now

Sunday 27 November 2011, by M K Bhadrakumar


Timing is three-fourths in international diplomacy. The spectacular display of three happy coincidences on the eve of PM Manmohan Singh’s pow-vow with US President Barack Obama in Bali is near-perfect in timing:

• India successfully test-firing Agni-IV missile that has a reach over large areas of the Chinese hinterland;

• Australia’s change of heart about selling uranium to India; and,

• Delhi announcing the rules for the implementation of India’s nuclear liability law.

Each of the above is apparently a ’stand-alone’ development, but they also become fixtures in an emergent wholesome architecture of regional security.

This spectacular display of coincidences also comes against a geopolitical backdrop. A fortnight ago I asked: ‘What is India’s foreign policy agenda?’ This was when I put together a host of disturbing signals that began appearing in recent weeks that alerted me that the beast was stirring and South Block was harnessing it for some new purpose.

It was quite obvious that the Manmohan Singh Government was once again stealthily resuscitating the foreign policy agenda built around the US-India nuclear deal. One could sense quite easily of late that Indian foreign policy was reaching crossroads and far-reaching moves were bound to appear to get the caravan going. The despondency among the Indian elites that the swagger had drained out of the US-India ties was all too apparent.

So, the beast is stirring, surreptiously. Once again, the pattern is of the government shying away from taking the nation into confidence and even obfuscating its moves, blithely taking advantage of a unique disinterest among the political parties, including, surprisingly, the Left parties that claim to have a foreign-policy vision for India and possess a cosmopolitan outlook on world politics.

If the near-term compulsion for all this need to be reduced to one single factor, it is the the government’s desperation to “activate” the US-India nuclear deal so as to fulfil the open and not-so-open commitments UPA-I made to Washington while negotiating the deal in terms of the downstream business spin-off for the US amounting to scores of billions of dollars, so that Washington will not hold up as hostage India’s membership of the Nuclear Supply Group and various high-technology regimes and even the permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Beyond this immediate compulsion lies the Himalayan question of dealing with a China which is certain to be a global power within another decade. Equally, how can India harmonise with the US’ strategy? India has crucial choices to be made here, but the US has made an offer to provide political and military support, which Delhi can’t refuse easily.

Agni-IV shows India’s potential as a ’strategic partner’. Canberra has summarily removed the only block on putting together a US-led containment strategy toward China that includes India and Australia (aside Japan and others). The unleashing of the nuclear business ensures that the US-India relationship is not stuck in a groove.

THE choice of the Indian elites has always been to view the US as India’s ‘natural ally’ against China. The enormous US penetration of the Indian media and think-tanks in recent decades all but ensures that the opinion-making can be calibrated. The plethora of ’studies’ that appeared in the recent period by the foot soldiers of the establishments in the US and India (advocating security pacts with the US and Australia, etc.) suggest that there has been great calibration of the public discourses. A new phase is also beginning where Delhi would welcome the powerful US think-tanks to come and set up shop in India. After all, why operate through the shoddy Indian proxies and hangers-on (and fatcats and dalals) when the brilliant US minds can directly handle the job of opinion-making in India more efficiently and professionally and in real time? India deserves quality time and attention by the best and the brightest American minds.

The new rules on the nuclear liability law will hopefully bring the developing panorama into the attention span of the political parties. Which would be a good thing to happen. On the other hand, with their meagre resources overstretched in combating Mayawati in her den, it is unlikely that foreign policy is of interest to the main opposition political party with its mofussil outlook. The Lok Pal Bill issue will in any case consume the winter session of Parliament.

The hard reality is that the government has watered down the nuclear liability law to accommodate the US business interests. The government’s spin doctors are spreading the canard that the US may find even this watered-down version unsatisfactory. This is really an insult to common sense. The watering down has been done in close consultation with Washington and the latter’s rhetoric in the most recent weeks shows that it is simply thrilled with what the mandarins in the PMO have been doing behind closed doors.

All eyes will now be on what PM gets in return from Obama. Our ‘indecisive’ PM has ‘delivered’, finally. Washington must be heaving a sigh of relief. The ball, as they say, is now in Obama’s court. It is no small matter that India is generating such a fantastic volume of nuclear business for the US companies—it could be anywhere up to 100 billion dollars.

This is on top of the arms purchases. India is also willing to become part of the US’ ‘contain-ment strategy’ toward China. It is literally risking tensions in the relations with China. The geopolitics of the region won’t be the same again.

The mandarins in the PMO could have put a wish-list into the PM’s coat-pocket to remind him to remind Obama to:

• Get India in as permanent membership of the UN Security Council;

• Redeem the pledge to get India into the NSG and the technology-control regimes;

• Remove all restrictions on high technology flow to India.

After all, it is an American cliché that there is nothing like free lunch. That Obama agreed not to be elusive anymore and instead have a one-on-one with our PM is in itself small change for all that Delhi has done. The country, too, must get something out of all Obama’s kindness.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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