If the year in India-U.S. relations could be conveyed through pithy phrases, two immediately come to mind. 2010 was the year in which the wheel turned full circle, with the U.S. once again turning its attention towards India after its advances were rejected by a rising China, intent on blazing its own path on the world stage. After the heady highs of the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration’s half-hearted and confused approach towards India had been a party pooper, and even the Singh state visit at the end of the previous year couldn’t hide the perceptible decline in spirits. Keeping President Obama’s November visit as a deadline, both governments searched high and low for the next big idea, a la the nuclear deal to bring the zing back into the relationship. The nuclear deal itself became the sum of many deals as the Reprocessing Agreement signed in March of this year was followed by the passage of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill by the Indian Parliament. Both procedure and outcome were mired in controversy, with India then signing the Convention on Supplementary Compensation for Nuclear Damage (CSC) to resolve concerns expressed by both the U.S. government and American companies over their liability in case of a mishap.
The other phrase that comes to mind is reinventing the wheel. June 2010 saw three Indian ministers accompanied by a phalanx of bureaucrats descend on Washington for the Strategic Dialogue that had been upgraded to ministerial level. Eighteen separate dialogues took place under the overall umbrella of the Strategic Dialogue, but they ultimately amounted to picking up the threads from where the Bush Administration had left off. Among the new areas dialogued about were co-operation in science and technology, research for clean energy and monsoon prediction, health and education, and women’s empowerment, but these were largely derided as soft issues to shift focus from an absence of dialogue on the hard issues to do with regional security. With the partnership now being tagged as “indispensible”, the million dollar question was what was so indispensible about India to the United States other than its large market? While an Indian Prime Minister had coined the phrase “natural allies” to describe the relationship, the geo-politics of the day and the shifting sands of international relations have put paid to that proposition for the time being.
It may well be said that such rhetoric is meant for public consumption, but even the most hyperbolic statement would still contain a kernel that would provide an indicator of the future direction of the relationship. But in this particular instant, even a word cloud analysis does not throw up any indicator of future trends. At best, the removal of sanctions on many Indian science entities might pave the way for increased technology sharing. (For the full wish list, go here). The quid pro quo could well be India signing the so called foundational agreements that would enable the U.S. to sell its state-of-the-art military equipment to India. There has already been movement in this direction with reports of a bilateral technical group to look into the issues being set up immediately post the Obama visit. The visit itself saw Obamamania sweeping the country; with wall-to-wall coverage and media frenzy of the type that the President would probably have last seen on his election night.
Coming to other straws in the wind, and seeing as this has become a free-wheeling blog post, there were other sets of wheels that showed that American companies were finally making their way into the Indian mind and the Indian market. Harley Davidson made it to Indian roads, though with a little help from Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, by his own admission, and ably backed up by Wikileaks. And an American car, the Ford Figo became the new kid on the block, selling almost 60,000 units and being voted as the Indian Car of the Year. Thanks to the Figo, Ford recorded an incredible 185% increase in sales in India year on year. Ford, like other American companies has found it a hard slough in the Indian market, but it has ultimately paid off. While the American market is an equally tough one to crack for Indian companies other than the well established ones, hopes that the Adam tablet from the Indian startup, Notionink, the first to crack the competitive high technology American consumer space were belied by delays in production that even led to talk of Adam being vapourware. Not the best way to go about being a trailblazer.
What else, the soft power of the two countries would have been at equilibrium, but for the sudden appearance of Pamela Anderson on the sets of Big Boss, the Indian equivalent of the reality show Big Brother. Hollywood films ran rampant on Indian screens, with the top ten movies, dubbed and otherwise, grossing almost $450 million in the Indian box office. Unlike 2009, however, when Avatar had beaten My Name is Khan to become the top grosser in India, this year, at least, Hindi films managed to hold their own. The Indian Diaspora in the United States contributed substantially to the bottomline of the Hindi film industry with the top ten movies grossing about $ 20 million at the American box office. One of the more bizarre suggestions that one got to know of through Wikileaks was that of harnessing Bollywood’s soft power and have Bollywood stars do the equivalent of a USO tour in Afghanistan to lift up the spirits of the locals, but one that was apparently never acted upon.
What will 2011 bring? More leaks from the U.S. Embassy in Delhi, for sure. With just 1947 out of the 251,287 cables released, there should be at least a few more to add to the 39 embassy cables that have so far seen the light of day. In the bilateral context, the cables show that Indian and American diplomats are formal in their interlocutions, judicious in their words, play their cards close to their chest, and give as good as they get. The terms of endearment are evidently different in this still somewhat prickly partnership. But is that the reason why the wheel had to turn full circle is something to be considered as we enter the New Year.