Grand words, but sobering reality

January 26, 2016 12:08 am | Updated November 17, 2021 03:10 am IST

American President Barack Obama struck a note of strong optimism this week on his country’s bilateral engagement with India, emphasising in an >interview the steady economic and strategic convergence that has occurred between Washington and New Delhi on his watch. Indeed, Mr. Obama has held collaborative efforts with the governments of two Indian Prime Ministers, first Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi, to an even keel. Notwithstanding the periodic diplomatic kerfuffle or policy wrinkle, most disruptively over >Devyani Khobragade ’s detention, bilateral bonhomie has held in areas as diverse as expanding trade and investment, regional and multilateral cooperation, counterterrorism coordination, military joint exercises, and most recently, policies to fight climate change. Particularly with Mr. Modi at the helm, the two countries have steadily added strategic depth to the bilateral relationship, whether on the Indian Ocean Region, >the Paris climate change agreement , trilateral exchanges with partners such as Japan, or third-country development projects such as those in the Africa region. Yet, some uncomfortable, unanswered questions remain in this space, and they pertain to terrorist attacks in India emanating from across its western border, to the paralysed civil nuclear agreement, and economic brawls that could, if unchecked, fuel spiralling hostility.

Major terrorist attacks in India — respectively in 2001 (the Parliament complex in New Delhi), 2008 (multiple targets in Mumbai) and >in 2016 (Air Force Station in Pathankot) — have opened up a chasm of suspicion between New Delhi and Washington, frustrating India’s foreign policy mandarins over Islamabad’s perceived double-game with Washington. While the U.S. President in the interview this week described the Pathankot attack as “inexcusable”, it is a travesty of justice that terror masterminds Hafiz Saeed, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Masood Azhar are not under arrest despite New Delhi submitting evidence of their complicity. The U.S. administration has leverage over Pakistan in the form of $13 billion in military aid under the Coalition Support Funds programme, so why only use words to chastise non-action on this front? Regarding India-U.S. civil nuclear energy cooperation, Mr. Obama expressed the hope that in the year ahead there would be deals for American companies to build new reactors; yet it is hard to see how this would materialise given the insurance conundrum stemming from India’s Nuclear Liability Law, which provides for legitimate protection in the event of a nuclear accident. Finally, a troubling question mark hangs over India, along with China, remaining outside the framework of the U.S.-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership. Exclusion from this trade framework may result in Indian firms losing market share to TPP signatories. Add to this the spate of mini-squabbles that have broken out over intellectual property rights protection and compulsory licences in India, over visa restrictions in the U.S. and a host of trade disputes that have reached the World Trade Organisation, and Mr. Obama’s comment that the bilateral relationship had “absolutely not” reached its full potential seems perfectly accurate.

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