After the nuclear step, the big leap

For the new Modi-Obama vision to succeed, India would need a more agile management of its international engagement on the economic and political sides considering the fact that the two leaders have agreed to elevate their strategic dialogue to include strategy and commerce

January 28, 2015 01:23 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

It is a measure of how important the India-United States civil nuclear agreement was to the bilateral relationship that even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that it constitutes the “centrepiece” of the strategic partnership between the two great democracies. However, the U.S. President > Barack Obama’s visit to India this weekend was not about that “centrepiece” but about the entire mantle.

Tying up the loose ends of the Indian nuclear liability law was about completing unfinished business. It was also about regaining U.S. trust. After all, the George Bush administration helped legitimise India’s status as a nuclear weapons power and expected, in exchange, at least some of the business that would then get generated. The liability law that India then enacted was viewed as an act of bad faith. The trust that successive Prime Ministers, from P.V. Narasimha Rao onwards, injected into the relationship was wasted away by this one act of Indian doublespeak.

Political doublespeak To return the relationship to where it was in 2008, when the U.S. secured the approval of the Nuclear Suppliers Group for India’s nuclear programme, it was necessary to clear the air on the liability law. In short, the nuclear stuff that hogged the headlines all through the weekend was just the ribbon that had to be cut for Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi to then move on. Move on they did. The real outcome of the visit is captured in the statements on their bilateral Strategic Vision and the Declaration of Friendship.

What the entire nuclear deal episode captures, however, is the price we pay for our political doublespeak. As Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh would often say that a political party’s view on policy should not be judged by what it says when in Opposition, but by what it does when in government. So, even though it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), under the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, that took the “first steps” and the “next steps” towards a strategic partnership with the U.S., the same BJP opposed the India-U.S. civil nuclear energy agreement under the leadership of Lal Krishna Advani, when he was Leader of the Opposition.

Ironically, it is Sushma Swaraj who, in 2010, reportedly picked up the phone and called the CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, striking an alliance with the Left to demand changes to the original nuclear liability law, who has had to now help find a way out of the impasse she helped create.

But then, the Advani BJP’s objection to the nuclear deal was not based on genuine concerns about strategic autonomy and the future of the nuclear programme. When Dr. Singh managed to win over Mr. Vajpayee’s National Security Advisor, the late Brajesh Mishra, and the leadership of the Department of Atomic Energy, the Advani BJP’s game became clear. It was in fact seeking to oust the Manmohan Singh government, not really block the nuclear deal.

Back on track Given that the BJP in office today is not the Advani BJP, but the Narendra Modi BJP and given that Mr. Modi was never an enthusiastic supporter of the Advani group’s ambition to seize power, he would have had no problem endorsing the deal that Dr. Singh struck and getting on with business. That is precisely what he has done. In six quick months he has cleared the cobwebs and revived what seemed to have become a moribund relationship during Dr. Singh’s second term.

The weakening of Dr. Singh’s prime ministership also coincided with domestic distractions for the U.S. President. The post-2008 economic crisis not only forced Mr. Obama to cosy up to China, but his Afghanistan strategy took him closer to Pakistan. India felt abandoned. It took the decisive victory of Mr. Modi, in May 2014, and a new reassessment of a post-Modi India by Mr. Obama, for the deal to be back on track.

Mr. Modi has understood the strategic > significance of the nuclear deal ; that it was not just about building nuclear power plants but, as he put it so eloquently on Saturday, the “centrepiece” of a strategic partnership. The wayward course of the nuclear deal only underscores the importance of strong domestic political leadership for success on the external front. A ‘strong’ Dr. Singh clinched the deal in 2008, a weakened one failed to deliver on it. A ‘strong’ successor has now completed the project.

The new ‘mantle’ The new ‘mantle’ is now defined by the joint statement issued by Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi, which has to be read within the wider framework of > bilateral relations defined by the Declaration of Friendship and the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. While the media, quite understandably, remained focussed on the “centrepiece,” a new mantle has now been put in place defined by these Vision and Friendship statements.

The vision defining the new partnership captures the geopolitical view that the key to India’s rise as a global player is “inclusive economic development” at home. It is also in India’s interest, as well as that of the U.S., to establish a rules-based system of global economic governance and a rules-based security architecture.

Critics of the U.S.-India partnership, and there would be many in both countries, tend to assess the new understanding within the paradigm of outdated Cold War thinking. India-baiters in the U.S. would chastise Mr. Obama for giving India too much strategic space with no assurance of any alliance being offered in exchange. Critics of the U.S. in India will charge Mr. Modi with bartering away India’s strategic autonomy and its “independent foreign policy.”

Both would be wrong. The reality is that both Mr. Obama and Mr. Modi have come to terms with the reality of the new world order, in which they see their partnership as strengthening a global economic and security architecture that would benefit both. In that sense, the three documents issued by the two leaders in New Delhi offer a realistic assessment of the existing power equation between the two interlocutors, on the one hand, and between them and other major powers, like Russia and China, on the other.

Time for hard work Going forward, the U.S. and India will work more closely together but will also be able to offer each other a wider margin for individual manoeuvre. Thus, for example, the U.S. may not be averse to India’s present level of engagement of Russia and China, just as India would be more understanding of U.S. relations with China and Pakistan. This new way of approaching the bilateral relationship within a larger global context would enable the two leaders to avoid the “zero-sum-game” trap in the regional context.

All this calls for a much more mature handling of Indian foreign policy and of India’s many strategic partnerships. Mr. Modi has demonstrated that he has the wit and wisdom to pull it off — being friendly with Vladimir Putin even as he hugs Barack Obama. But it is not an easy act to sustain, especially when difficult forks are reached and a choice has to be made one way or another. The art of diplomacy lies in avoiding such dilemmas.

For the new > Modi-Obama vision to succeed, India would need a much more alert and agile management of its international engagement on the economic and political side, specially considering the fact that the two leaders have agreed to elevate their strategic dialogue to a strategic and commercial dialogue.

This would require much greater inter-ministerial coordination at the bilateral, regional and global levels. India cannot continue with the contradiction of the past wherein one ministry would be seeking favours from a country while another ministry would be poking it in the eye or cocking a snook.

As Spiderman’s uncle tells him when he discovers the newly acquired powers of his young nephew, with great power comes great responsibility. One can extend that argument and suggest that in fact the quest for great power entails even greater responsibility. Once a nation has arrived at a new equilibrium of power, it can afford to make mistakes and get away. But the journey to that new status is fraught and the path is replete with slippery slopes.

Once the celebration of success of a summit gone well is over, the time for careful hard work and sustained leadership begins.

(Sanjaya Baru is Director for Geo-economics and Strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)


>>“As Superman’s uncle tells him when he discovers the newly acquired powers of his young nephew, with great power comes great responsibility.” – read a sentence in “After the nuclear step, the big leap” (Editorial page, Jan. 28, 2015). It is Spiderman’s uncle who said this.

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