Many Indians still go “awww” when a US secretary of state endorses — in Hindi — PM Narendra Modi’s alliterative catchphrases, in this case, “sabka saath, sabka vikas”.
But it’s not for his prowess in Hindi that John Kerry will get a warm welcome in India, certainly warmer than in Israel where he tried to stitch together a ceasefire last week. India has a genuine affinity for the US, despite the fact that we are probably the most prickly, opinionated and arrogant nations around.
India is also open for business, which is a refreshing change from the past five years and something that must be recognised. There is something else that must be recognised. Modi and his government have an uphill task to get governance working and the Indian economy back on track.
It’s a tall order particularly when the real fiscal deficit is upwards of 6% (as economists privately maintain), food inflation high and government spending off the charts. To add to it, Modi’s government formation is far from complete. That entails a degree of confusion which Americans ought to be familiar with.
So it’s a good thing Kerry declared the US would be in a “listening mode” in India. Being the first cabinet level engagement between India and the US since Modi took office, the strategic dialogue being held in Delhi today is important because it will put on the table the central challenge to India-US relationship: How do both countries situate their foreign policy vis a vis each other within the broader canvas?
This relationship used to have a zing. That is clearly missing. Americans roll their eyes at us and increasingly the reverse is also true. Kerry might prose on about looking at the big picture, but that sentiment fails at the first dispute.
The contours remain the same — India wants technology, capital and capacities, the US wants access, a more transparent investment environment and stronger intellectual property rights.
In his curtain raiser to a US thinktank, Kerry said, “Our private sector is eager to be a catalyst in India’s economic revitalisation. American companies lead in exactly the key sectors where India wants to grow: in high-end manufacturing, in infrastructure, in healthcare, information technology, all of them vital to sort of leapfrogging stages of development so you can provide more faster to more people.”
Which may be true. Modi certainly is clear about the role the US can play in India’s transformation. The government has taken the first baby steps to restoring sentiment and positive energy. This should continue.
None of this will be helped by the current battle over the trade facilitation agreement (TFA) under WTO. There is a veritable storm waiting to break on our heads in the next couple of days, if a solution to India’s avoidable brinkmanship continues to elude us.
The dialogue, which is a prelude for the biggie in September when Modi visits Barack Obama, will need to work on two big deliverables. Defence trade should be kickstarted by breathing fresh life into the stalled defence trade and technology initiative. Modi’s real conversation on defence will be held only a week or so later during the visit of US defence secretary, Chuck Hagel. Opening up of the Indian defence sector to private players ought to bring massive benefits to all concerned. Here India and the US are both burdened with competing stultifying bureaucracies. A political sword is needed to cut through verbiage at both ends.
On the Indian side, the Modi government needs to seriously work on amending the 2010 civil nuclear liability law to allow the growth of Indian nuclear industry, even if they don’t want to make it easy for foreign players.
These need to be worked on if we are to get over the now infamous “drift”. Officials will throw thick “factsheets” of agriculture, education, skills development, science and space at you to show how closely we are working together. But as everyone will tell you, we need a headline.
More seriously, on the geopolitical front, India and the US need to engage with each other on the future of Af-Pak. In addition to the known unknowns of US withdrawal and Pakistan’s expanding terror badlands, the new unknown of a post-ISIS world has to be taken into account. How that particular force/ideology unfolds in this region will need deep confabulation between Delhi and DC.
What, for instance, are portents for extremism scattering after Pakistan army operations in North Waziristan? China’s expansionism, Japan’s normalisation and territorial disputes in the east and South China Seas are staple fodder for this dialogue. India and the US will have to recommit themselves to building an economic corridor to southeast Asia through Myanmar, a project that is being contemplated with Japanese involvement as well.
The big announcements will be reserved for Modi’s visit to Washington in September. But the strategic dialogue will give both governments a better sense of the kind of support Modi can expect from Washington in the next few years.
Beyond the fact that India might not want to encounter the US trade representative in a dark alley right now, it is in a relatively happy place because policy paralysis and governance deficit are behind us. The current US gridlock might look tame after mid-term elections in November. It is in India’s interest to move fast.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.