LONDON — While the rest of the world swoons over the new U.S. president, India is conspicuous by the discomfort that the new political dispensation is generating in the corridors of power in New Delhi.
After eight great years under George W. Bush, U.S.-India relations may be entering another tumultuous era. Barack Obama, to the extent that his views on issues that impinge on Indian interests are known, is coming to office with a very different set of priorities. Earlier indications of these priorities do not bode well for the future of U.S.-India relations.
Obama took a very tough stand against outsourcing during the campaign and talked of a tax agenda that punishes companies that “ship jobs overseas.” Instead, he underscored the need to give tax benefits to companies that invest in the United States itself, those “who will keep jobs at home.”
Obama’s instincts generally do not seem to favor free trade and globalization, and he played this up especially during the primaries while wooing working-class voters who had seen their jobs either go overseas or simply disappear as a result of the forces of globalization. The working classes are the base of the Democratic Party and so catering to them is essential for any presidential hopeful.
Although Obama has argued that America cannot “shy away” from globalization, he has suggested that strong measures are needed to protect jobs in the U.S. It is difficult to see how the Obama administration can legislate against economic forces that underpin the realty of outsourcing. But it is significant that instead of showing leadership on the issue of offshoring, Obama has tended to take a rather narrow approach tailored primarily to his electoral requirements.
In fact, at one point early in the primaries, the U.S.-India Political Action Committee, one of the major Indian- American groups, publicly protested to the Obama campaign about media reports that his staff was “engaging in the worst kind of anti-Indian American stereotyping” in their attempt to take on rival Sen. Hillary Clinton on the issue of outsourcing to India.
The other issue that will be front and center for the Obama administration will be the strengthening of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. This is an issue that is close to the heart of the Democratic policy establishment and the “nonproliferation fundamentalists” are waiting in the wings to jump back into the fray after a long hiatus in the wilderness.
The centerpiece of Obama’s approach is his perception that the best way to fight nuclear proliferation is to have global regimes that can put “social pressure” on countries that have remained outside the various regimes.
The Obama administration will resume the languishing effort to negotiate a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) and will go for the earliest possible ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). His advisers have suggested that the U.S. should take the lead in getting CTBT approved, not just to limit testing but to end it for all time. Obama will need a comprehensive engagement with the Senate to make sure that the objections that led to its defeat in 1999 are overcome. With a Democratic majority in the Senate, this should not be difficult though it is not clear if the U.S. yet has the ability, absent testing, to do all of the modeling necessary to maintain the safety and security of its nuclear stockpile.
Obama’s advisers have also suggested that to have a verifiable FMCT, it is crucial to get states like India and Pakistan into the framework. A push is expected to be made at the Conference on Disarmament. Obama supported the U.S.-India nuclear pact only after his amendments were adopted to make sure that fuel supplies to India remained restricted and connected to a continued test moratorium. Though the Indian government succeeded in concluding the nuclear pact during Bush’s term, the new administration will read the text of the agreement very differently from the Bush administration.
Yet clearly the most troubling aspect of Obama’s foreign policy for India is a suggestion gaining ground in the policymaking circles in Washington that the success of U.S. endeavors in Afghanistan depends on greater American activism with regard to Kashmir. It is the sort of muddle-headed approach to South Asia that historically has made U.S. policy toward the region such a catastrophic failure, and it is once again coming back with a vengeance.
Obama’s new Kashmir agenda threatens to derail the progress U.S. and India have made in improving their relationship over the last decade. Already, separatist forces in Kashmir are taking heart from Obama’s views and see it as a vindication of their militant agenda.
India cannot be expected to give in to Pakistan’s territorial ambitions so that the Pakistani Army can fight more effectively in the troubled border regions of the North West Frontier Province and Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It is the underlying fragility of Pakistan’s basic institutions that is haunting Pakistan as well as the West’s war on Islamist extremism.
The state institutions — the civilian government as well as the military — seem unwilling to acknowledge the obvious: that the threat of extremism haunting the very survival of Pakistan today is the consequence of Pakistan’s long-standing policy of using Islamist extremist mobilization and jihadist terror for domestic political purposes and for projecting Pakistan’s ambitions in its neighborhood. Greater American activism on Kashmir will only worsen the situation in the region.
So even as ordinary Indians celebrate the coming to office of the 44th U.S. president as a vindication of American ideals and values, Indian policymakers are getting ready for a new era in U.S.-India ties that might just turn out to be a turbulent one. At least that’s the way it looks at the moment.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College London and is the author, most recently, of “Contemporary Debates in Indian Foreign and Security Policy.”
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