India, US manage differences better now, says retired envoy

Arun K. Singh  

Arun K. Singh has seen from a vantage a point what he calls “a dramatic turnaround” in India-U.S. relations over the last decade. The diplomatic community in the city bade him farewell this week as Mr. Singh retired from the Indian Foreign Service after 37 years of service, 15 months after he took over as India’s ambassador to the most important capital in the world.

Reticent and a stickler for propriety and rules, Mr. Singh never misspoke but never did he shy away from articulating Indian positions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gestures towards the U.S. were interpreted by several U.S. commentators as the beginning of an unqualified partnership, and Mr. Singh had the job of interpreting it for the American audience.

Interpreted India

“America has its idea of exceptionalism. We also have a notion of Indian exceptionalism,” he told a Washington audience once. India realises that its partnership with the U.S. is the most important, he told American interlocutors. India’s strategic policy is driven by its development needs and no, India has not abandoned the concept of strategic autonomy.

Speaking at a Diwali gathering last year — with many American officials in attendance — he said climate change negotiations must account for the fact that millions of Indian homes still do not have access to electricity.

Sitting in a downtown coffee shop that has none of the formality or the imposing majesty of the ambassador’s office, Mr. Singh is still guarded, and measures his words, looking back at his tenure and India-U.S. relations.

“It is not that India and the U.S. are on the same page on every issue. No two countries can be. That should not worry us. What is different today is the way we manage those differences. We have candid conversations that only closest of friends can have. We have multiple mechanisms to resolve issues, whether it is trade or defence or technology. Our ability to manage those differences have improved,” said Mr. Singh.

Mr. Singh took charge as the deputy chief of the Indian mission in 2008, a day before the civil nuclear deal was signed. “Though I did not have a role to play in that, I benefited a lot. And I had a role to play in following up on that, widening the area of cooperation based on the opportunities that emerged. Between 2008 and 2016, the relationship has significantly transformed,” Mr. Singh, who went to France and Israel as ambassador before returning to Washington in April 2015, said.

Between two Presidents in U.S. and two Prime Ministers in India, the trajectory of India-U.S. relations has improved despite occasional hiccups, said Mr. Singh. “Our Prime Minister was invited as the first state guest by President Obama in 2009. In 2010 he travelled to India and declared American support for India’s membership of the UNSC.

He went again in 2015 and became the first U.S. president to visit India twice in his tenure.”

Modi’s impetus

With Mr. Modi at the helm, the relations got a fresh impetus, Mr. Singh said. “In the last two years our Prime Minister has been to the U.S. four times. Each visit had a significance of its own, reflecting different aspects of our relationship. His first visit emphasised the role of the Indian diaspora; last year when he went to the west coast, that underscored the deep partnership we have in digital technology. Observers of India-U.S. relations tell me that the June visit, when our PM addressed the U.S. Congress, was the most successful and consequential of all bilateral visits.”

Mr. Singh plans to spend his time between New Delhi and Washington DC where his wife is a teacher at the American University. He has navigated two of India’s most sensitive bilateral relations — with the U.S and Israel — at crucial moments, but for details one has to wait for his book. And hope that he will be less restrained.

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