As the President’s visit draws nearer, the delicate dance being played out by both sides is fascinating to watch. While the American side would prefer the Tango, the hosts have decided that a carefully choreographed (with emphasis on choreographed) ballet is the way to go. The managers of the visit seemed to have decided to err on the side of caution when drawing up the Presidential itinerary, major considerations being his way with words, what he symbolizes in his persona, and the volatility of the inter-governmental relationships in the region. So, out went the President’s visit to Chabad House on security grounds. Out also went the President’s visit to Wagah border where he would presumably have made a speech on the lines of Ronald Reagan’s 1997 entreaty to President Gorbachov at the Brandenberg Gate which brought the Berlin Wall crashing down. Whether a speech would have had any result other than further burnish his Nobel Peace prize can only now exist in the realms of speculation.
As is the norm during such State visits, both sides draw up wish lists and there then ensues some hard bargaining with lots of give and take. This worked when such visits were few and far between. Whilst summit level diplomacy worked well in case of the U.S.-India Civilian Nuclear Deal (that has proved to be a flash in the pan), Prime Minister Singh’s State visit to Washington in November last yielded very little by way of substance. The increased frequency of these visits has meant that the list of issues that are yet to find closure for various reasons, from a totalisation agreement, to defense agreements is growing, even as new issues such as the legislation on H1-B visa and outsourcing are bringing new irritants into the relationship. The parlous state of the U.S. economy plus the fact that a Democrat administration is in power would mean that these new issues will also go into the intractable issues column on that list.
Reading between the lines, the Americans seem to have made it clear that discussion on issues that would impact American jobs is a no-go area. The American argument seems to be that when the going was good, we welcomed thousands of Indians to the United States and provided them with jobs; and now it’s your turn to help us out by buying our goods and services in a big way. This argument is of course somewhat fallacious since the United States was responding to the needs of its own economy, as it has always done, when it opened the gates for foreign workers.
If the United States is bent on improving trade relations, then on top of its agenda should be the removal of the constraints on trade and collaboration in high-technology items. That however, does not seem to be the case, with the U.S. still stopping short of completely removing these impediments. The nuclear deal notwithstanding, this is still a transactional relationship with strategic considerations very much playing second fiddle. As the Prime Minister’s successful visit to Japan amply testifies, a strategic relationship finds traction only when there is a clear and overwhelming desire on both sides to take that relationship forward. Of course, one advantage with the India-Japan Strategic Partnership is the absence of domestic spoilers. The Japanese Prime Minister has no need to turn Bangalore into a bogeyman for domestic audiences nor do sections of India polity look on Japan with suspicion.
Administration officials have been tom-tomming the fact that this is one of only two visits by an American President to India in the first two years of his first term in office. Well, the earlier one was by President Jimmy Carter, and we all know how that went. For those too young to recollect, it began with “the biggest crowds [Carter] had addressed as President” assembling at the Ram Lila grounds in Delhi on New Year’s Day of 1978 and ended with Carter (caught off mike) telling his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance that “after we return, we must write a letter, very cold and blunt” to Prime Minister Morarji Desai. (This was in the context of Desai refusing to Carter’s request to open Indian nuclear facilities to international inspection.) The Indian authorities are no doubt hoping that the similarities between the two visits are confined to the positive.