Washington: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once owned the Indo-US relationship, confidently, but now it is almost as if he is trying to claim it so that no one else can.
Why he dropped the American project after securing the biggest transformation in bilateral relations is a question to which there are no clear answers. For the Obama Administration, the transformational became the transactional over time.
Both sides are satisfied taking the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism” – to quote Martin Luther King Jr. whose “I have a dream speech” marks its 50th anniversary this week.
Still, the belated attempt to give a political push to Indo-US relations is welcome. The Americans are trying to drum up enthusiasm for prime minister’s “working visit” next month. It will be a one-day affair punctuated by lunch.
India’s credibility in the United States has dipped as growth rates have declined amid complete policy confusion. The dysfunction in New Delhi is very visible. This has made expectations low, which in turn is creating a worrying cascade of reduced performance and shrunken ideas.
President Obama is preoccupied by crises in Syria and Egypt and has paid no attention to India for a while. He will say the right things at the right time but that’s about it.
It suits both leaders to celebrate a relationship that doesn't have obvious negatives. Obama needs a breather from attacks for his lack of leadership on the world stage and Singh needs to escape from under the collapsing government he runs. Or doesn't.
National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon spent last week in Washington meeting senior US officials to try to cobble together an agenda for the one-day visit. He met his counterpart, Susan Rice, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. He also took the town’s temperature at an informal session at the Carnegie Endowment with policy wonks.
Three announcements are possible: on reducing hydrofluorocarbons or HFCs, currently said to be the most potent greenhouse gases; some movement on the defence technology initiative on co-production and co-development and may be an agreement of sorts on the nuclear reactor front.
The last one is the toughest but efforts are under way to move forward. Even though Secretary of State John Kerry announced a September deadline on a visit to New Delhi to conclude a “small contracts agreement” as a prelude to a final contract with Westinghouse, problems keep cropping up. Mainly from the US side.
Indian officials are exhausted from the hugely complicated US export control requirements on nuclear trade and the constant opening of new issues by Westinghouse. Menon conveyed his frustration to US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz last week. He has urged the US to finalise its list of demands so the process can move forward.
Clearly, an easier one to achieve in time for the PM’s visit is an agreement to work together on reducing HFCs, the current focus of attention for environmentalists.
Manufacturers have been using HFCs in refrigerators after chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs were phased out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol. Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in June to “work together” to reduce HFCs during their summit. It is something India can easily do. Both Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden have pressed India to cooperate on expanding the Montreal protocol to include HFCs.
Menon also indicated a possibility on increased Indo-US defence cooperation and called it the new “path-breaking” idea. He wants to move from a “buyer-seller” relationship to one of “co-development and co-production.”
The Americans are keen and have suggested joint production for some aspects of the M-777 howitzer. But the Indian side doesn't think it can swing an agreement by next month. Washington is keen to “get the ball rolling” under the “Defence Technology Initiative” but New Delhi still has too many doubts and questions about the level of technology on offer and reliability.
The non-movement dampens enthusiasm here, especially of those who go to bat for India.
“We want to elevate our game and hit hard,” said one official.
Unless something tangible moves, the India crowd in DC can’t tackle the labyrinthine inter-agency process for approvals. It needs something to show.
The PM will have a nice visit, no doubt, with the right amount of cheer and goodwill but there is no real jaan in it. What a pity since he is the same politician who shifted India’s official needle from “anti-American” to a saner place.