President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are due to meet on 2 April. This would be the first conversation between the two leaders as despite having spoken to over 20 heads of states, President Obama did not lift the telephone to make a call to New Delhi. Now having charted out major policy decisions on financial recovery and the Afghan-Pakistan imbroglio, he should be free to look at building partnerships between democracies.
The period of Republican Administration under George W Bush could be regarded as a golden era for Indo US relations which culminated in the 123 Agreement (Agreement for Cooperation Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy) on 10 October 2008. With President Barack Obama, there are a number of apprehensions. President Obama's focus on the Afghan-Pak imbroglio with India's sensitivity to cross border terrorism and Kashmir, the global economic crisis with America in recession and curtailment of outsourcing are some of the issues constricting engagement. On the other hand India's relative political and economic stability, professional armed forces and counter insurgency experience can be leveraged with the US Administration in the wake of the global financial crisis, industrial slow down, global and international security concerns particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Indian Ocean.
During the Republican Administration, President George W Bush, was personally focused on improving relationship with India. As the complexities in Iraq and Afghanistan grew over the years with the Administration coming for censure at home and abroad, Bush required India as a success story. The United States was also dependent on India for shaping its policy in South Asia thereby developing a strategic understanding in many spheres. With the coming of the Obama Administration there are considerable reservations in India and it is felt that the, 'golden era' of Indo US relations may come to an end.
President Obama's interest in India per se is low. It should be noted that the "killer amendments" on the nuclear deal were proposed by Obama himself. The Administration including Secretary of State Ms Hillary Clinton has shown more interest in relations with China with the hope that it will provide the financial stimulus for an economic recovery. However China may not be able to deliver as per US expectations and therefore President Obama would have to look towards India though this may not happen in the near future.
On progressing the nuclear deal with the United States there are some reservations on reprocessing and so on for which India would have to wait for greater clarity in US policies. As India has signed agreements with France and Russia, a delay would result in denying American firms a major share in India's nuclear energy pie. Here the American corporate lobby should be encouraged to exercise influence on the US government to expedite relevant nuclear agreements in mutual interest
In the field of disarmament, given President Obama's interest in non proliferation, greater impetus to issues as Fissile Material Cut Off Treaty [FMCT] and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTBT] could be expected. India has to examine the proposals on FMCT and CTBT carefully to ensure that these are universal and non-discriminatory. China will also have to stop the support being provided to Pakistan in the nuclear field to facilitate progress on non proliferation.
On the Kashmir issue, the Obama Administration has been convinced that it may not be fruitful to intervene, so hopefully this is not revived. The successful free and fair Assembly elections in 2008 indicate that the back of militancy has been broken through a comprehensive policy by India therefore mediation in Kashmir has become irrelevant.
India's economic leverage with the US is important in some respects, because of the size and growth trajectory of our economy. However, our influence may be constrained by the fact that sovereign funds based in the Middle East and China have large shareholdings in American corporations in strategic sectors including the financial segment. The US is likely to go slow on outsourcing, international free trade and economic integration with the World. We can significantly contribute to the core programmes outlined by the Obama Administration to include energy, health care reforms and education. We have a number of leverages in this sector which can be effectively utilized.
In the overall context of our foreign policy, it was visualized that this opportunity to reframe our engagement with the United States should also be used to balance our relations with Russia, the European Union, Japan and China, while holding no illusions that strategically China's policies will remain one of "containment" of India. [Based on proceedings edited by the author of an Expert Group Round Table in New Delhi on the subject on 27 February. Participants included some of India's foremost foreign policy, diplomacy and defence experts.]