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The presidential tweet, and the accompanying picture, conveyed it all—the end of awful stress, the sweet relief of victory. The three-word message—“Four more years”—announced to the world on Wednesday morning Barack Obama’s re-election to the White House. It did not take the Indian leadership long to respond. Congratulatory messages from both President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were dispatched within hours of the tweet going viral. The knife’s-edge contest between Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, had generated much interest in New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment. But now that the dust over the US presidential election has begun to settle down, questions are being asked on what Obama II means for India.
“Obama’s second-term relationship with India will start off on a more solid footing than his first,” predicts Karl Inderfurth of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. An indication of how well it kicks off can be seen within the next 10 days, when Obama and Manmohan meet at the East Asia Security Summit in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. This will be Obama’s first multilateral meeting after his re-election and he will take the opportunity of spelling out the role he sees for the US and its close partners in the region, including India, to maintain security and stability in Asia.
But, as Inderfurth points out, Obama did take some time to warm up to India after becoming president in 2008. His first year was spent in wooing China, cajoling Pakistan and keeping India out from his proposed security architecture in Asia. Then, of course, he did a quick course correction by not only visiting India but also hosting Manmohan Singh as the first foreign leader at the White House, and championing India’s entry as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in other major world groupings. There has been no turning back since then. For the remainder of his first term, Obama identified India as a key US partner, and also encouraged it to play a much more significant role in Afghanistan and in becoming a source of security and stability in Asia.
MEA officials, in fact, say in a tone of neutrality that there is now a bipartisan consensus among the Democrats and Republicans that the US must have close and strong ties with India. But they acknowledge that Obama’s re-election would help in maintaining continuity. “It will be easier to pick up the threads from where we had left before the US polls,” says an Indian diplomat. He argued that had there been a Republican president in Washington, it would have taken the two sides months to get to know each other as well as the issues on the table.
A bipartisan consensus among Democrats and Republicans endorses close ties with India.
There could be some changes in a key position in the US administration, particularly if Hillary Clinton refuses a second term as secretary of state. A number of names—including Massachusetts senator John Kerry, US ambassador in the UN Susan Rice and national security advisor Tom Donilon— have started doing the rounds as possible replacements for Hillary. There could also be a new secretary of defence if the current incumbent, Leon Panetta, steps down. But most believe that even if these changes are made, it will not affect Indo-US relations in any major way.
According to Inderfurth, India is now seen by Obama as a ‘defining partnership’ for the US in the 21st century—certainly a more reliable and predictable one than China. He points out that the US recognises the important role India can play in a peaceful, stable future for Afghanistan, as it prepares for its security transition—not a departure—from Afghanistan in 2014.
Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institute, agrees with this view of policy. “Obama’s victory further cements the US-India strategic partnership which will face difficult challenges as NATO transitions to a residual force in Afghanistan and the drone war in Pakistan continues.”
Some others say Afghanistan, despite offering an opportunity to cement future Indo-US relations, presents its own challenges. As Lisa Curtis of Washington’s Heritage Foundation points out, “New Delhi and Washington will need to engage in a serious dialogue about the future of Afghanistan where they both seek to uproot terrorist structures, in order to pool their resources and reinforce each other’s policies and avoid working at cross-purposes.”
The Indian leadership will get a chance to fine-tune its approach to Afghanistan during Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s visit (November 9 onwards) to Mumbai and New Delhi where, apart from seeking investment, he would also discuss how peace and stability can be restored in his country.
Afghanistan, though important in itself, it is not the only issue that defines Indo-US relations. Several items dominate the wishlist on both sides (see infographic). Besides those pertaining to purely bilateral ties, there is the overarching geopolitical situation in Asia, where trade, energy, security and foreign policy all collide. “India is an integral part of the Asia pivot in that it shares the US’s democratic values, mutual interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean and surrounding seas and a general desire to hedge against the rise of China,” says Curtis.
Indian policy planners would prefer neither a too-close, nor a tense US-China relationship.
India, like other countries, may hedge against a rising China, but it would not encourage a tense atmosphere dominating the important sealanes, particularly in the South China Sea, through which much of Indian commerce is done. For policy planners in New Delhi, neither a “too close” China-US relation, nor a tension-filled one is desirable. While India does not mind the US being a little unsettled about China’s rise, it does not want to see a security alliance against China being put in place by the Americans. India wants to improve cordial relations with the US and its allies in Southeast Asia, but does not want any single power dominating the region. Similarly, India is also against rising tension between the US and Iran, since it is likely to have an adverse impact on the Gulf and West Asia—from where much of India’s energy needs are met and a region where over six million Indians live and work. It would want to see resolution of Iran’s controversial nuclear programme through negotiations and expects Obama to move in that direction.
“Relations would certainly benefit much if India could step forward a bit more when asked by the US to shoulder greater responsibilities and not duck and weave when awkward questions such as Syria arise in the UN,” says Sumit Ganguly of the Indiana University in Bloomington. But it is unlikely that India would rush to take any hard decision that may have a negative impact back home. This may well be the norm, as the Indian leadership starts looking inwards in the coming days and avoids pursuing any policy that could be deemed controversial or done “under US pressure”. Many in India are predicting Lok Sabha elections before the term of the current government ends in mid-2014. Irrespective of whether the ruling Congress is looking at early elections or not, many hard decisions on foreign policy in general and relations with the US in particular, may now be kept for the future. Therefore, despite a likely push by Obama in his second term for stronger and closer relations with India, Indo-US relations may not move up to any dramatic level in the coming days.
Unless of course, Manmohan Singh decides to leave the Prime Minister’s Office with all guns blazing.
By Pranay Sharma in New Delhi and Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington