The US election India can’t lose

Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, India will be the fulcrum of America\'s South Asia policy.

Published: 04th November 2012 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd November 2012 12:12 PM   |  A+A-

In two days as the United States votes to elect its next president the entire world will be asking the question, as indeed they have done every four years: What’s in it for us? In India too foreign policy mandarins, academics, journalists have watched the election warm up, seen the candidates debate and weighed the utterances of the candidates and the Republican and Democratic foreign policy platforms in an effort to predict what lies in store for us. Those who watched the last presidential debate, the one supposedly devoted to foreign policy issues, would have noted the complete absence of the mention of the word ‘India’ during the entire duration of the debate (whereas this reporter counted the word ‘Pakistan’ used 25 times by the candidates and the moderator, a statistic bean-counters out there will find interesting).  In fact, both candidates repeatedly kept trying to steer the debate to domestic issues, eschewing a full-fledged debate on foreign policy matters. Indeed, candidates devoted a third of the debate time to domestic issues.

Does that mean the next president is going to be preoccupied with a largely domestic agenda and that the US will turn its back on the world? The election takes place at a time world affairs are particularly fluid, be it in the Arab world or nearer home, in the region we like to call our extended neighbourhood, Iran, or Afghanistan, a country with which we share a technical border.  It is useful to make a distinction between the postures of the candidates when in campaign mode and when they come into office, a transition that instills both sobriety and pragmatism to such a degree that it is often difficult to tell whether the policy of the new incumbent or a repeat incumbent is Republican or Democratic.

In the debate the basic point of foreign policy divergence between the candidates was how each defined his topmost priority. The Republican emphasised that to him a nuclear Iran was the greatest threat whereas President Obama identified terrorist networks as his. Regardless of whether Romney was playing to the Jewish gallery and Obama subtly reminding his voters that there were other potential Osama bin Ladens that he would get, both articulations have salience for Delhi.

Consider Obama’s utterances on Iran: “As long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.” And, “We’re not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere. And I’ve been very clear to them, you know, because of the intelligence coordination that we do with a range of countries, including Israel, we have a sense of when they would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program, and that clock is ticking.”

The first outtake is that whether it is Obama or Romney who gets to be in the White House in the next four years, the foreign policy priority might well be Iran. The blowback will certainly be felt in New Delhi, where there are persistent differences between Washington and Delhi as to how to view Iran, a country in relation with which the word “strategic” has been used in the Delhi Declaration of 2003. As Rajiv Dogra, a former diplomat points out, “If media reports are to be believed the US wants us to mediate with Iran. What role can India play to remove the sanctions? That is going to be the first Iranian demand.”

Naresh Chandra, a former cabinet secretary and ambassador to the United States, thinks that a first time president will be more preoccupied with domestic issues. He says that hostilities with Shia Iran will lead to an upsurge of violence relating to this major Muslim sect which will have implications in the Arab world, the Gulf, our region, and beyond.

According to Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary, the faultlines are clear enough. He says, “India has shown some spunk and has not yielded to the US. There is a gap on Syria, a gap on Iran and a Arab Spring in general. Nor for that matter are we squarely in the Russia-China camp. So the effort on the part of the US will be to make sure that India doesn’t drift away.”

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat who has for long served in the Gulf and was twice Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, like  Naresh Chandra, also worries about the aggressive sectarian and confrontationist policies that we see underway in both Iran and Syria.

He makes a much wider point. “The challenge for India,” Talmiz says, “is how to cope your own interest, not how to cope with Romney or Obama. I have nothing in common with the US paranoia on Iran. The Gulf policy of the US has nothing in common with us. It is total support for Israel’s maximalist agenda, and total support to authoritarian powers in the region. It completely violates all the tenets and beliefs of our country. Why should we buy into the vision of confrontation? It has very little to do with our interest.”

Whether we buy into that vision of confrontation or not there are those who are of the opinion that time is running out for India to make a hard-headed decision on Iran. Ronen Sen, who has been India’s Ambassador to Russia, Germany, UK as well as the US when the civil nuclear deal was signed, is one of them. He feels Indians “have a sense of procrastination. We are caught in a time warp. We find it difficult to change to rapidly changing realities.”  Iran, he feels, will be the number one preoccupation for either the incumbent or a new occupant of the White House. He warns, “We will not have the luxury of dodging some issues. We will have to make choices which will have repercussions. We will have to come down to brass tacks.”


How events play out in the Gulf, a region in considerable ferment, and how the next American president deals with it, will have critical bearing on India, given the number of Indians working there, the remittances, the energy flows as well as other linkages. Talmiz postulates that the authoritarian order in the Gulf will collapse because of the unrest in the streets. “It is a matter of time” before it happens, he says, of an area where the political system is inherently unstable. He feels that policies aimed at maintaining a political status quo will unleash uncontrollable forces.

There is also concern over the Arab Spring midwifing the soft-landing of the hitherto disparate and diffused Salafists into the staging areas of the Arab world, in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Their increased consolidation and cohesion could lead to undesirable consequences. After all, it doesn’t take much to make a violent point. In Bombay, for example, all it took was 10 people in the front and 50 or maybe 60 people in the logistic and other support activities, to bring the city to its knees, albeit with ISI backing.

But this is more or less certain, that in the years since the end of the second Clinton term, India has been pulled out of the foreign policy “black hole” that Paul Wolfowitz, a former deputy secretary in the Pentagon and later president of the World Bank spoke about. We are talking about a decade and a half of steady warm-up of ties between India and the US, starting from Bill Clinton’s diplomacy during Kargil and rapid transformation under George Bush (see accompanying story) and now a holding pattern under Obama. There is a big political distance between the Nixon years when the USS Enterprise threateningly sailed into our waters and the US navy’s collaboration with ours immediately following the 2004 tsunami.

Naresh Chandra says, as far as the overarching policy is concerned, the US will continue to look at India as a stabilising factor in Asia, the one big country where the US has the least to worry about. Previously, South Asia was important mostly for negative reasons. Nowadays those negative reasons are confined to Pakistan. The US seems to have finally abandoned its constructive ambiguity on Pakistan. This was tellingly obvious in the debate when Obama sneered presidentially that “if we had asked Pakistan for permission (to go after Osama bin Laden) we wouldn’t have gotten it”.  It is essentially a case of once bitten twice shy. On August 20, 1998, US submarines and ships in Arabian Sea launched a barrage of 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Al Qaeda training camps outside Khost in Afghanistan. The target was bin Laden. As Strobe Talbott, former deputy secretary of state wrote in Engaging India: “The (Clinton) administration tried hard to keep the Pakistanis in dark about the plan since their intelligence services were tied into the Taliban. The United States needed to catch bin Laden by surprise if there was to be any chance of killing him... Those (missiles) that found their mark killed a number of Pakistani intelligence officers and trainees at the Afghan camps. These casualties were further cause for outrage in Pakistan and also confirmed Indian charges that Pakistan was officially supporting terrorism and the US administration’s need to keep the operation secret… That attack apparently missed bin Laden by a matter of hours”. Talbott writes that “suspicion lingered for years afterward that even though Pakistanis did not know exactly when the attack was coming, they may have known enough to tip off bin Laden”.

Points out former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, “On our relationship with Pakistan, there is an independent dynamic at work. Even though Americans are moving in a direction in which we want them to, we are engaging more and more with Pakistan, and softly.”

Talmiz says, “Kashmir is not being debated at global platforms. It is terrorism which is the main issue, and we have a lot of support on this.”

It is not so much Pakistan that India has to worry about but Afghanistan where the US is on a drawdown. Obama intends to thin the American forces and pull out, leaving the security handling largely to the Afghans and those willing to take on that burden. With the West losing appetite for an interminable military sojourn, the question arises what effect that will have on the ground, as India engages deeper with Afghanistan, both in the light of its own interests and with the US pushing for it. Asks Dogra, “The Americans have been pushing us for a long time especially on the security front. But the point is, can we take on Pakistan and the Taliban? Can you afford body bags both in Afghanistan and India as a result of this increased terrorism because of this policy? It will be the kiss of death.”

Sibal points out other drawbacks of any unrealistic Indian policy on Afghanistan, and access to Central Asia, saying, “The moment you don’t have any connectivity, what can you do?” The problem with using Iran as a springboard is complicated by the absence of “any serious long-term relationship” with that country.


Nobody really thinks either Romney nor Obama is going to facilitate India’s entry into the Security Council, although Obama in his address to the Parliament flattered his audience by saying, “I can say today, in the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed United Nations Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.” Although deafening applause followed this, there are no indications of this happening. In fact in 2011 Hardeep Puri, India’s ambassador to the UN, told a television channel that December 2012 is the deadline India has set for itself to become a permanent UNSC member but that India could make it “much earlier”. Puri’s expectations seem to have been comprehensively misplaced. As Talmiz puts it: “The US is not going to hold our hand and take us to the high table. We have to clear our path with our elbows, and find our own way.”

That leaves the big unanswered question of China. Naresh Chandra feels that if the gap between India and China, already substantial, rises, then our policy options shrink. Ronen Sen points out that China’s economic capabilities have more than quadrupled. “Our capabilities will be determined by our economic development” he says.

Dogra points out that the opening up of FDI in retail happened because of American pressure. Indeed, Obama during his 2009 visit made it clear that the trip would fetch America 50,000 jobs. When India did not move on FDI he gave an interview to the Press Trust of India on July 15 pressing the point, the same period when Time put Manmohan Singh on the cover and called him an “underachiever”. By the middle of September, his cabinet had cleared FDI in multi-brand retail.

Sibal is sanguine, though. He says, “Basically nothing much will change. Fundamentals will remain pragmatic. Labour sector reforms will not happen. Reforms in pension and insurance may not go through parliament. They cannot manipulate India beyond a certain point, which will always limit dramatic aspects of the relationship.”

The US is intent on “rebalancing” the region with India as a “linchpin”.  Says Sibal, “We are caught in a difficult situation where we have concerns about China and there is recognition that because China is worried about US-India relations, we would want to leverage that. So when the US defence secretary says India is the linchpin, of Asia strategy our defence minister throws cold water. We are telling Americans we are not comfortable with the pace you are setting for us.” Sibal says India is afraid to go too far in any direction. “We do everything on all ports so we feel comfortable with ourselves. Let things sort of drift and do patchwork here and there. Ad hoc and in response to fears and concerns.”

Ronen Sen says that in the final analysis the 123 deal pulled India out of the nuclear doghouse and the defence framework agreement with the US put some long-term underpinnings to the relations. Nuclear power has a long gestation of 40 years, and Sen says this will lead to predictability in the relationship. No matter who occupies the White House.


interesting times for India

Economy: The ghost of the 2008 meltdown refuses to go away; quantitative easing is in its third avatar now. Low growth and poor job creation have resurrected the American fear of a repeat of 1929. Both Obama and Romney have their own version of the economic miracle they will work, but it’s not going to be easy. As India’s largest investment partner and one of it’s major trading partners, a US recovery could catalyse India’s return to GDP-happy days.

The Afpak Campaign:  The US is winding up its campaign in Afghanistan, but is expected to retain a military presence, as in Iraq. Drone attacks and ‘dirty tricks’ can be expected to continue; the fallout will have a bearing on the entire South Asian region. India is also involved deeply in the Afghanistan reconstruction effort. Romney can just about tweak Obama’s policy; India will have to stay the course.

The Middle East:  It’s Iran, Iran, Iran. A new war in the region could destabilise India’s network of carefully sustained relationships across West Asia. We have been allowed to buy oil from Iran; a war could lay waste a great deal of Indian planning. India could possibly help midwife a new deal, which would be a win-win situation for the whole world.


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