It has been a challenging month for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been charged with nuclear negotiations with Iran, dispatched to the Middle East to try and broker a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza, and tasked with leading a campaign to sanction Russia further for the conflict in Ukraine. Compared to those missions, his 48-hour visit to India should have been a snap, but both circumstances and a lack of diplomatic headway so far will mean that Mr. Kerry will have his work cut out for him as he begins his meetings this morning.
No truck for 10 years
To begin with, >Mr. Kerry’s visit is effectively the first time the U.S. has engaged the Modi government at a cabinet or political level.
This is in itself curious, given that the U.S. administration has had no ties with Mr. Modi for the past 10 years, except for one meeting with the then U.S. Ambassador Nancy Powell earlier this year — owing to its decision to cancel his U.S. visa in 2005 and politically boycott his government in Gujarat. Adding to the pressure is the fact that there has been no movement in the India-U.S. relationship since last September, when former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Washington, and the Khobragade fiasco has dominated the narrative since. “A year of drift,” is how one senior official described the last 10 months to The Hindu .
America is not known for half-measures, so when President Barack Obama picked up the phone >to dial Prime Minister Modi in May, it was expected that the U.S. would waste no time in reaching out to him and putting the past behind them. Instead, while Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and the neighbourhood have all rushed senior members of their cabinet to meet with Mr. Modi and his colleagues, the U.S. has waited two months. Mr. Kerry — his visit is to be followed by Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s in August — thus has a mission overload in his time here as he needs to acquaint himself with the new government, conduct the day-long India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, and also set the agenda for Mr. Modi’s visit to Washington. At the same time, there are pressing issues in the India-U.S. equation. At a hearing a few weeks ago, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal confessed to feeling “frustrated” at the >lack of movement on the civilian nuclear deal .
On the issue of supplier’s liability, India has dug its heels in, while the U.S. doesn’t want to do any nuclear deals until there is a move. Officials in Delhi say there have been no creative suggestions to circumvent that logjam, and Ms. Biswal’s option of “a legal framework … so that it is not unlimited liability,” has found no takers here so far. Add to that is the logjam on trade, both bilateral and at the global level, where India has decided to block the WTO agreement unless its conditions are met. In a speech on Monday, Mr. Kerry made the strongest mention on India’s trading posture, saying, “India has a decision to make about where it fits in the trading system.”
Pushing India on opening its economy will be another key issue during the talks, even as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has removed some roadblocks to foreign direct investment.
Finally, given the storm Mr. Obama faces in the U.S. on the subject of immigration reform, including a possible impeachment action by Republicans, it is unlikely Mr. Kerry will be able to give much in terms of India’s concerns on H1B visa restrictions; the issues of the pharma industry will be another sore point to tackle with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
Mr. Kerry arrives in New Delhi at what one can only describe as unfortunate timing. To begin with, the U.S.’ National Security Agency (NSA) is in Indian crosshairs over reports that listening devices found at the residence of Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari were part of the U.S.’ surveillance programme. Last month, the release of documents that showed that the U.S. administration specifically targeted BJP leaders threatened to derail visits by Deputy Secretary William Burns and Senator John McCain. The issue is bound to lead to some uncomfortable moments during Mr. Kerry’s visit as well.
On religious freedom
What will probably hurt the most is that the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on international religious freedom (USCIRF) have, this week, released their reports for the year, where India is placed in a “Tier 2 category” of countries, along with Afghanistan, Turkey and Russia.
The reports criticise the Indian government for a rise in communal incidents, while making specific mentions of the “government inaction” and “delay” in redress of the grievances of victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Their mention of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) will, no doubt, upset the government further.
“This (IRFA) provision has been invoked only once,” says this year’s USCIRF report, “In March 2005, it was used to exclude Chief Minister Narendra Modi of Gujarat state in India due to his complicity in riots in his state in 2002 that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,100 to 2,000 Muslims. USCIRF had urged this denial of entry. It continues to urge the Departments of State and Homeland Security to develop a lookout list of aliens who are inadmissible to the United States on this basis, and USCIRF has provided information about several such individuals to the State Department.” (http://1.usa.gov/1ft9bnH).
It is significant that the U.S. government didn’t choose to omit these references, including the controversial word “complicity,” despite its statements on reaching out to the Modi government, and Ms. Biswal telling U.S. Congressmen that the visa issue “is a thing of the past” and “doesn’t need to be addressed further.”
As Mr. Kerry is in India for his mission of what he calls “realising the potentially transformational moment” between India and the United States, he may well find that and many issues do in fact need to be addressed further, before he can effect such a transformation. Perhaps the best way to avoid some of the minefields ahead of him would be to acknowledge the damage in the relationship and to understand that a fresh start will take more than just the two leaders to meet, they will have to address the problems of the past as well.