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India’s newfound irrelevance to Washington

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — For the last eight years under the Bush administration, India occupied a pride of place in the strategic calculus of the United States. India was wooed as a rising power, it was seen as a pole in the emerging global balance of power; it was acknowledged as the primary actor in South Asia; and then it was given what it had long desired — de facto status as a nuclear weapons state.

From a problem state that could never say yes, India emerged as a state that the U.S. could do business with. It was all too good to last for long. And now one of the architects of the U.S.-India strategic partnership during the Bush period, Shyam Saran, is asking India to hedge its bets in light of what he views as Sino-U.S. strategic convergence.

Clearly, the new administration in Washington has little time for New Delhi. From a nation that just a few weeks back was seen as an emerging power that could provide answers to global problems, India is now viewed primarily as a problem that the Obama administration needs to sort out. It is instructive that the only context in which Obama has talked of India so far is the need to sort Kashmir out so as to find a way out of the West’s troubles in Afghanistan.

Talk of a strategic partnership between the two democracies has all but disappeared. The new administration is so busy fighting day-to-day battles that it has little time for grand strategy. Moreover, whatever foreign policy hands it has displayed so far reveal an administration that actually has little time for friends.

Growing emphasis on U.S. ties with China has alarmed Japan. A letter to Russia suggesting a bargain whereby the U.S. would not go ahead with missile defense in return for Russia’s helping to convince Iran not to pursue its nuclear weapons program has alarmed Poland and the Czech Republic. An eagerness to negotiate with Iran has alarmed the Gulf States and Israel.

Asia is clearly emerging as the new pivot of U.S. foreign policy, but it doesn’t look like India has a place in the new priorities. When Hillary Clinton decided to make Asia her first destination as Secretary of State, the original Policy Planning Staff transition memo apparently suggested that India should be included in the itinerary. But it was an idea not deemed worthy of execution.

The Bush administration had started looking at India as part of the larger Asian strategic landscape. Jeff Bader, the new senior director of East Asia who will now be looking at India, is a China expert and knows little about India or South Asia. While the previous administration’s love-fest with India was driven by Bush himself, Obama seems to have little interest in South Asia beyond getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan at the earliest.

Hillary Clinton was seen as the great hope for India, but it was she who made it clear early on that the most important bilateral relationship in the world is the U.S.-China relationship.

Richard Holbrooke went to India partly to carve a new policy for Afghanistan, and howsoever Indians would like to think that India and the U.S. share a common interest in tackling terrorism and extremism from the turbulent territory between the Indus and the Hindu Kush, the U.S. has so far been lukewarm to the idea of involving India in its larger strategy toward Afghan-Pakistan.

What this sudden change in tone from Washington indicates is that despite what the media and strategic elites in India would like to believe, India has nowhere near the kind of profile that China today enjoys in global polity. While China has been enjoying double-digit growth rates for the last two decades, the Indian story is not even a decade old. Moreover, the tragic inability of the Indian government to responsibly manage the economy when the going was good may have put India’s future growth prospects at risk.

Defying initial expectations that India can remain immune to the global economic slowdown, the Indian economy is witnessing a downward trajectory, as the Asian Development Bank warns that India’s large fiscal imbalance poses daunting challenges of economic management in the coming years.

Meanwhile, the chaos that passes for foreign policy in Delhi does a great disservice to Indian aspirations. The dithering in New Delhi over the U.S.-India nuclear deal made it clear that the Indian polity stands divided on fundamental foreign policy choices facing the nation.

Left in the fray are serious doubts emerging about the nation’s ability to leverage the present economic and strategic opportunities to its advantage. India’s response after the Mumbai terror attacks in late November may have garnered some kudos for restraint, but it also revealed a nation that is happy to outsource its security to other powers, denting Indian military credibility.

Even as Indian elites have been talking of a chimerical “Chindia,” China has been expanding its global presence from Africa to Latin America and even in India’s own backyard. China is today viewed as indispensable for solving global problems from North Korea and Iran to the financial turmoil. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is reportedly even planning to ask for China’s help in Afghanistan.

The fact remains that India is of little help to the U.S. in addressing its immediate foreign policy priorities. Yet, it would be exceedingly short-sighted of the Obama administration to ignore India while searching for a balance of power in Asia. India, however, needs to put its own house in order before crying itself hoarse over the changing winds in Washington.

A global reassessment of India is primarily predicated on its recent economic rise, but India’s rise will remain incomplete in the absence of a credible vision with a larger purpose. It’s that vision that India needs right now. The rest, including the Obama administration, will follow on its own.

Harsh Pant teaches at King’s College London.