India and US now need to focus on next bilateral partnerships

India-US relations need to be built from the ground up and not the top down

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Both the US and India still have a persisting problem at the bottom of the diplomatic and political pyramid.

There was no doubt that President Barack Obama’s arrival in New Delhi with the First Lady to attend the Republic Day ceremony will be a big event, and no one was disappointed. From the time Air Force One landed in Delhi, the media jamboree went into a hyper-frenzy and both Obama and Modi, being masters of media management, took full benefit of the opportunity.

As Obama visited Rajghat and then held talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including a casual ‘chai pe charcha’ sit-down in the lawns of Hyderabad House, the news cycle started to stream bits and pieces of information on what stood in store for the current crown of India – US relations, the civil nuclear deal.

As the day progressed, the topic of the nuclear deal and what had transpired in talks between the two leaders and their negotiators over points of contention such as the nuclear liability law remained vague, and while this was still early into Obama’s visit, it set the agenda for much of the day. 

Some news outlets early in the day using their own sources started relaying information that the problematic pressure points in the deal had been ironed out and both sides had come to an agreement. However, discrepancies were played out throughout the day on the issue as seemingly a breakthrough to take movement of the nuclear deal to the next and possibly final step was unveiled, but was interpreted as the final hurdle being crossed. 

While Barack Obama said "we are committed to moving towards full implementation, this is an important step that shows how we can work together to elevate our relationship”, India’s Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh said that the India-US nuclear "deal was done”, suggesting all hurdles had been taken care of. Singh’s claim seemed at least slightly off from the American narrative, which stated only that commitment was made to move forward. US Ambassador to India, Richard Verma, also added that the thorny issues nuclear liability and U.S. demands on tracking the whereabouts of material supplied to the country had been addressed. However, the fine print of the agreements is still awaited. 

India and the US also announced four “pathfinder” projects for the defence sector in areas such as aircraft carrier technology and design, next generation Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), jet engine technology and so on via formation of a working group. This process, also an important baby step, will take years before India can reap its benefits for the domestic defense sector. This, of course, will depend on the success of the working group itself. Beyond that, these four projects could be seen as testing waters for sensitive issues such as transfer of technology. Both countries will have to make sure of these pathfinder projects’ are a success, as failure could setback the next phase of defense engagement, which involves heavy cooperation on joint-development and manufacturing in India, significantly. 

India-US relations have been on a steady yet often frustrating pace to fulfillment. On paper, both countries and the democratic institutions that bind them indeed make them natural allies. However, it has never been that simple. The relationship has more than often been stonewalled by mistrust and disagreements on a host of issues historically, and only over the past decade or so has the bilateral understanding been consistent enough to setup a concrete framework of positive and mutually beneficial engagement. Only a few months back US flags were being burnt by a select few in Delhi as the Khobragade affair created tensions between the two governments. 

Both the US and India still have a persisting problem at the bottom of the diplomatic and political pyramid. It is in fact at the mid and lower level of discussions and negotiations where, till today, a lingering sense mistrust and suspicion persists between both countries. The level of comfort that diplomats between two countries need to develop is still to be desired between India and the US, hence, leaders and governments of both countries must work from the ground up in efforts to bolster Indo-US ties, specifically in areas such as trade, transfer of technology and defence. 

In fact, Obama’s visit is an excellent opportunity to begin an overview of relations and institutions set up between India and US. Some of the most important negotiations that are going to seriously affect Indo-US ties in one way or the other are still to come. The issue of climate change and negotiations on the same before the Paris summit in November this year will certainly challenge the resolve of both the countries towards each other’s interests. It will be interesting to watch whether India is able to link the civil nuclear deal with the climate change debate itself, which will highlight the argument for large US investment in renewables in the country, a move towards which both Obama and Modi seem to be committed with US willing to help develop India specific renewable energy technology, specifically on the solar front.  

India and the US at the moment do not have a strategic partnership, and Obama’s visit to New Delhi has certainly not been a ‘diplomatic coup’ yet, as many are claiming. On the nuclear deal, more than the governments, it is the American investors such as Westinghouse, GE and others who in the end will decide after running independent risk assessments whether the arrangement reached is good enough for them to invest in India’s nuclear sector. The outcome of this may be that some may take the risk, while some may not. However, if the final outcome becomes viable for both parties involved then perhaps one can say a ‘diplomatic coup’ was realistically achieved. 

Prime Minister Modi has done good service to India’s cause by making the invite to Obama for the Republic Day celebrations and making it a success. However, the advertised relationship between Obama and Modi now also needs to filter down and strengthen the existing groundwork for the next level of bilateral partnership.  

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