The irony of the suspicion of a foreign hand in the Koodankulam protests, voiced by the Prime Minister, was that it brought back memories of India as the theatre of great power rivalry. The Russian Ambassador, an old India hand, jumped in to say that he had always suspected that the Americans were undermining Koodankulam. The Americans asserted, rightly, that they had nothing to gain by sabotaging the Indian nuclear industry. If anything, they had much to gain by wide acceptance of nuclear power in India, as they were ready to supply reactors as soon as the liability issue was resolved. The unspoken fact that Koodankulam could not have reached the current state of progress without the India-US nuclear deal was forgotten. Mutual suspicion crept into the very basis of the new strategic partnership with the US.
An architect of the nuclear deal and a champion of the new partnership, Nicholas Burns, had lamented only in February that, in failing to join the EU-US sanctions against Iran, “India had let down the US”. Is the India-US roller coaster continuing its downward spiral, despite the innumerable working groups burning the midnight oil to find new avenues of cooperation?
Ambassador Nirupama Rao asserted as recently as on March 2, 2012: “Today, India and the US are true partners- in strategic terms, in economic terms, and in the development context…. the oldest democracy and the largest democracy in the world are also natural allies.”. But she had nothing to say about the vibrancy of the relationship in strategic terms, except that the strategic dialogue would resume in a few months. If economic partnership is the bedrock of the strategic partnership still, our divergent views on the global scene are making an adverse impact on bilateral relations.
The list of US grievances against India is growing. Added to the nuclear liability law, the decision on the purchase of fighter jets and the Arab Spring issues, is the Indian hedging on Iran. Nothing is more vital for the US today than Iran, with Israel threatening to go it alone if the US dithered into letting Iran go critical with its nuclear ambitions. The signals India had given in the heyday of the nuclear embrace that Iran may not be indispensable to Indian energy and defence strategies appear false, when India is going the extra mile to ensure continuity of oil supplies, despite the disruption in the payment arrangements.
Hillary Clinton had seen India-Iran relations as part of India’s smart economic diplomacy and tried to cool tempers in Washington and urged that the US should learn from India and Brazil to make its economic interests central to its foreign policy. “Emerging powers like India and Brazil put economics at the center of their foreign policies. One of the first questions they ask is ‘how will this affect our economic growth?’ We need to be asking the same question, not because the answer will dictate every one of our foreign policy choices- it will not- but it must be a significant part of that equation,” she had said last year. But she said a couple of weeks ago in response to a question as to what steps India, China and Turkey were taking to help the US-led sanctions against Iran: “We are going to continue to keep an absolute foot on the pedal in terms of our aggressive outreach to them.” She said that the US had very intense and very blunt conversations with each of those countries and that there were a number of steps being pointed out to them that they could and should take. She even claimed that these countries were taking action that went further and deeper than their public statements indicated. Clearly, the economic argument is no more acceptable to the US in the Iran case and it seems to have given up any hope that India might be able to influence Iran to change its nuclear posture.
A vital area of cooperation, counter terrorism, is itself a matter of quibbling with words between India and the US. A top Pentagon commander told the Congress recently that US special forces were stationed in five South Asian countries, including India and Sri Lanka. This seemingly innocuous statement attracted a sharp denial from an Indian Defense Ministry spokesman. “US Special Forces teams have never been stationed in India in the past, nor are such teams stationed in the country presently”, he said. It is public knowledge that the two countries have a robust programme of military exchange with cross visits for training and joint drills. It is quite possible, as Sri Lanka has admitted, that US military personnel may have been stationed in the respective Embassies on occasions and the Indian denial appeared to be an over sensitive reaction.
Our current non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council has imposed its own strains on India-US relations. When India was on the Council in 1991-92, there were occasions when India voted differently from the US, but since there was a global consensus on the first Gulf war, there were no glaring contradictions in our respective stands. Our reservations on the summit document of the Security Council on non-proliferation and our position on humanitarian intervention created tense moments, but we were largely on the same page on many issues relating to the Gulf war. The US was appreciative of the fact that, though we had reservations on forced disarmament and other measures in what came to be known as the “mother of all resolutions” after the war, we went along, because of the special nature of the situation. But this time, with the increased expectation from India after the nuclear deal and the apparent support President Obama gave to India for permanent membership of the Security Council, the US became less tolerant of our differences on a number of issues that came up before the Council. Accusations were made of a return to the nonaligned mentality and not facing up to the challenges posed by the dramatic changes in the world. The perils of permanent membership of the Security Council without the power of the veto were all too evident this time around.
It is indeed a sign of the times that a former Foreign Secretary felt constrained to answer criticism in US circles as well as among Indian commentators that India’s reluctance to take position on difficult issues facing the international community as fence sitting and avoiding decisions that could carry political costs. He asserted that India is not a “freeloader” on the international system, enjoying its benefits, but shirking responsibility for sustaining it. “Demanding India’s support for dubious, interventionist regime change policies in which negotiations are excluded unless those targeted capitulate, and on not obtaining it to accuse India of ‘slapping the US in the face’ is hectoring, not diplomacy”, he said.
The truth of the matter is that the US is looking for friends, who will be friends whether they are right or wrong. Unless it serves the purposes of the US as a global power, no country receives its largesse, not even recognition. India has paid a price for its independence right from the start and we cannot expect the status of a natural ally as long as we exercise our options in the light of our own wisdom. The roller coaster must move on with its gradual ascent and fast descent.
T.P. Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967)
Former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA