Siddharth Varadarajan

From nuclear issues to terrorism and protectionism, India has reasons to be cautious but not alarmed

New Delhi: Though the prospect of an Obama victory has been internalised by India’s foreign policy mavens for some time now, there is no denying the fact that the Democratic re-conquest of the White House has filled the strategic establishment with a certain sense of foreboding and dread.

Some fear the “re-hypenation” of India and Pakistan in American foreign policy and renewed activism on the question of Kashmir. Others worry about protectionism and curbs on outsourcing. The third set of concerns revolves around arms control issues. With Barack Obama reiterating his commitment to the early U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the early conclusion of a verifiable Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), there is a feeling that India will soon find itself under pressure to forswear nuclear testing and the production of weapons-grade nuclear material forever.

The fact that India has unhappy memories of some of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy advisers — Anthony Lake, Strobe Talbott, Robert Einhorn and Richard Holbrooke (the last two backed Hillary Clinton but later made their peace with the new President-elect) — is also contributing to a sense of unease on Raisina Hill. To be sure, there are more benign names and influences too — Vice-President-elect Joe Biden, for one, or the former State Department point man for South Asia, Karl Inderfurth. But with the unabashed lovefest which the George W. Bush administration produced for India, especially since 2004, this seems like pretty slim pickings.

On each of three issues identified above, then, India has reason to be cautious. The underlying bilateral trajectory set by President George W. Bush is unlikely to be altered by Mr. Obama when he takes control of the administration but there are bound to be shifts in emphasis here and there.

And these shifts will pose new challenges for New Delhi. But while caution and even a measure of concern are called for, there is no reason for South Block to get alarmed or panicky.

In making their assessment, Indian policymakers need to ask a fundamental question. Precisely what value does the American establishment attach to its emerging ‘strategic partnership’ with India? The question is relevant because if the value attached is high, there is no way an Obama administration will risk jeopardising the gains Washington has already made through the Bush years by pursuing policies on terrorism, Kashmir and the economy which would alienate India. Certainly, there can be no doubt that the appointment of an American “special envoy” on Kashmir, least of all someone like Bill Clinton, would slice through the ‘strategic partnership’ like a hot knife through butter.

But just how important is the strategic partnership to the United States? In economic terms, the U.S. sees enormous gains from building the closest possible ties between American and Indian capital. With its enormous market of middle class consumers and a relatively productive and cost-effective workforce, India offers enormous opportunities for U.S. companies to sell their goods and services, outsource and subcontract work and forge alliances for conquering third country markets. The financial crisis may generate temporary protectionist impulses but these are unlikely to lead to drastic policy changes on the trade front for the simple reason that consumer prices within America would then rise sharply.

In strategic terms, the value of India to the U.S. today is at least partly as a hedge against an uncertain world. To the extent to which the Bush administration’s policies made the world an even more uncertain place, the role accorded to India in Washington’s scheme of things was not accidental.

But this role for India also came with the twin risks of excessive proximity and greater regional instability. Under a McCain presidency, that proximity would likely have become too cloying and even suffocating and the attendant instability absolutely unbearable. India wants normal and even close relations with the U.S. just as it does with all global and regional powers.

But as long as it is seen as a hedge, those relations will never be normal.

If Mr. Obama as President succeeds in building bridges with Russia, China and Iran, and if he is able to resist the temptation of seeking a long-term military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Central Asia, his administration would continue actively to solicit the support of India as a key rising power. But this would not necessarily be in the expectation that New Delhi would gradually downgrade its partnerships with others.

Turning to the specific political challenges New Delhi might have to confront, is there a serious danger of the “re-hyphenation” of India and Pakistan? As the American war in Afghanistan gets ramped up, U.S. tolerance for the cover the Pakistani military still provides to armed extremists in Afghanistan is coming to an end. And no one has been more vocal about this than Mr. Obama. Just as some in India would like to exploit this sentiment to score points against Pakistan, it is natural for the Pakistani establishment to try and use the American concerns to put pressure on India.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Barnett Rubin and Ahmed Rashid have called for a “grand bargain” in which the Pakistani state trades a course correction on its western front with a more sustained international effort at resolving the Kashmir dispute with India. This idea is not new. Pervez Musharraf justified abandoning the Taliban regime in September 2001 as a legitimate price Pakistan had to pay in order to keep up its support for militants in Kashmir. But the U.S. found it difficult to accept such a trade-off, least of all after the brutal murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl made it clear there was no Chinese wall separating the terrorists operating in different parts of Pakistan. Things today are no different.

India needs to impress upon Mr. Obama and his advisers that the most important course correction the Pakistani military has to undertake is to forswear involvement in politics for all time to come. Once that step is taken in earnest, the policy of building alliances with or tolerating terrorists in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Pakistan itself would naturally come to an end.

India can help this process by dealing with the grievances of people on its side of the border in Jammu and Kashmir, pursuing the ‘soft-borders’ approach of the past few years and also forging ahead with confidence-building measures like a fair solution to the Sir Creek and Siachen disputes. As long as New Delhi pursues a sensible approach towards Kashmir and Pakistan, interventionists and busybodies in Washington will find no space to fish in troubled waters. But if India lets down its guard and walks into the trap of confrontation — as the erstwhile Vajpayee government did in 2002 — even a “pro-India” administration would jump at the opportunity to mediate.

On the CTBT, much will depend on how the newly elected Senate looks upon ratification. But India has no reason to feel perturbed. Presumably, a thorough internal assessment was made in 1998 when Mr. Vajpayee told the U.N. that India would not stand in the way of the treaty entering into force. What that meant, in practical terms, was that if all countries whose ratification was needed for the CTBT to enter force were on board barring India, New Delhi would then be willing to convert its de facto test moratorium into a de jure commitment. The Vajpayee formulation was not contested by any party then and could form the basis for a national consensus on the subject even today. As for an FMCT, a consensus text is likely to take several years to evolve.

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