It was always unrealistic to expect that Round 4 of the India-United States Strategic Dialogue would push the bilateral relationship up from its so-called plateau into the heights. So it’s not surprising that the much sought after ‘big idea’ to take ties to the next level remains elusive. What it has done, though, is confirm that there is no magic wand that can be waved to make differences disappear. Certainly, it takes more than high-sounding rhetoric about the India-U.S. relationship as “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century” or the “common DNA” that Secretary of State John Kerry said the two countries share. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid publicly played down New Delhi’s concerns on the Afghan ‘reconciliation’ process, but the silence of the joint statement on what is happening in Doha is one indication that India is not as optimistic about talks with the Taliban as the U.S. On a day that the Taliban attacked the presidential palace in Kabul, Secretary Kerry’s assertion that the Doha process is predicated on certain “red lines” was no consolation. The differences between the two sides on Iran were also apparent by the conspicuous omission of that country from the joint statement. It is passing odd that on two of the most pressing global and regional issues, the two sides preferred to remain silent or sparing with their comments in public. Another major difference, over visas for IT professionals, has been bumped back to industry leaders on both sides. Where there is convergence is on working together in the East Asian region, where India’s apprehensions vis-à-vis China have increased in recent months, with the joint statement stressing the importance of the India-U.S.-Japan dialogue.
Despite the low-key reception accorded to him by New Delhi and the lukewarm tone of the dialogue, Mr. Kerry could not have been unhappy with the commitment from New Delhi that it would clear the way by September this year for Westinghouse to set up a power plant in Gujarat. The company’s negotiations with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited have gone slowly, partly over the issue of confidentiality, but mainly because of India’s nuclear liability law. It is significant that the stated timeline coincides with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s likely visit to the U.S. for the U.N. General Assembly. While the proposed visit next month of Vice-President Joe Biden is a strong signal of the Obama administration’s desire for political engagement, ensuring that New Delhi keeps its promise on the nuclear deal will be top of his agenda too. Speeding it up is desirable for both sides, but not at the cost of Indian interests.