It is a paradox that has confounded foreign policymakers at home and abroad for decades: A basic lack of trust permeates the India-United States relationship in spite of a confluence of ideas and peoples. (The Devyani Khobragade episode and the controversy over visa denial to Narendra Modi are fresh in the Indian mind.) Contrast it with the congruence at the governmental level between India and, say, a Russia or an Israel; even when their people-to-people ties hardly add ballast to the bilateral relationship.
In a sense, the issues on which India and the US can agree in principle are also the ones on which they disagree in practice. Take, for example, China, Iran, Afghanistan, West Asia or counter-terrorism. The list is neither exhaustive nor in any particular order. A decade after Bill Clinton’s overtures to India, a US official visiting India in 2010 had the following sobering news for his hosts. Admiral Robert Willard, formerly commander of the US Pacific Command, insisted that the US shared India’s concerns on China’s new-found assertiveness at the Line of Actual Control or in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, but while “any change in military relations or military manoeuvres by China that raises concerns of India” could certainly be considered as occurring within his area of responsibility, India will have to tackle such issues on its own.
A possible explanation for Washington’s position on this and other issues of core concern to India came from a visiting US scholar who told this writer that issues such as Jammu and Kashmir or ‘stapled’ visas were problems between India, on the one hand, and China and Pakistan, on the other; unlike the South China Sea, which was a global commons. This scholar went on to assert that Washington’s engagement of Beijing had changed from “engage, then hedge” to “hedge, then engage”.
Similarly, notwithstanding Barack Obama’s policy pronouncements on terrorism emanating from India’s neighbourhood, the US’ ties with Pakistan and the situation developing in Afghanistan today have only served to accentuate the divergences between New Delhi and Washington. Obama’s recent State of the Union address, in which he spoke about partnering nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists “who threaten America” and continuing to hunt down terrorists who pose a direct threat to the US and its allies, hasn’t inspired much confidence either.
The 30 September 2014 joint statement issued towards the end of Prime Minister Modi’s talks with Obama in Washington had, among other things, spoken about how they “stressed the need for joint and concerted efforts, including the dismantling of safe havens for terrorist and criminal networks, to disrupt all financial and tactical support for networks such as al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the D-Company and the Haqqanis”. However, New Delhi is hardly surprised that Jamaat-ud-Dawa (formerly Lashkar-e-Toiba) chief Hafiz Saeed plans to hold a public rally in Karachi, coinciding with Obama’s India visit.
In the words of Robert D Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India who served under a Republican president (George W Bush), “it is striking how little the two nations presently have in common on major issues in the diplomatic arena in any practical and effective way”. In particular, he points out, the transformation of the US-India relationship beginning in 2001 was based on, one, the concern in both governments that China was seeking to fundamentally change the balance of power in Asia to its advantage and, two, their mutual determination to jointly thwart that Chinese grand strategic objective.
“Unfortunately,” says Blackwill, “this collaborative preoccupation in an operational sense regarding the rise of Chinese power appears to have suffered an absence of mind in both capitals.” He does not anticipate any serious US-India collaboration in the next two years to cope with the rise of Chinese power. “This is partly because (India) cannot discern a long-term and coherent Obama administration policy towards China.”
Blackwill is equally sceptical of any breakthroughs insofar as Afghanistan and Pakistan are concerned. He says the question is not whether the Taliban will continue to make major gains in the country, but whether one would see elements of an Iraqi Army-like collapse of the Afghanistan security forces. He anticipates the US to leave managing the aftermath of its long military intervention in Afghanistan to Pakistan and India, too, but, at the same time, the “US military assistance to Pakistan will likely become a bone of contention in the US-India relationship”.
Bharat Karnad, a research professor in national security studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, isn’t optimistic either. He cautions that a lameduck Obama (he has two years left in his second four-year term), who does not enjoy a majority in the US Senate, may not be in a position to deliver anything of consequence. Obama could at best burnish his image domestically at India’s expense, is how he chooses to put it.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has flagged four broad issues — climate change and renewable energy, civil nuclear cooperation, defence and security, and trade and economic ties — that, in his estimation, would likely figure prominently in the Modi-Obama talks after the visiting US president has participated in the Republic Day celebrations. Incidentally, the visit has many firsts to its credit; most notably, it would be the first time a US president would be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade. Also, it would be the first time a US president would visit India twice.
Both sides have expressed a desire to advance the implementation of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement by addressing the outstanding issue of liability flowing from the provisions of the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act, 2010, passed by Parliament. A contact group set up after the September 2014 Modi-Obama talks was expected to continue its discussions until the very end in a bid to hammer out an agreement before Obama lands in New Delhi. For its part, India would hope for an early entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group.
Defence is an area that has seen an exponential growth. Since 2008, the bilateral defence trade has grown from near zero to nearly $10 billion. Also, over the past seven years, the average time to process a US defence export licence for India has dropped almost 40 percent. Moreover, less than one percent of licences destined for India are denied, a figure, which Washington claims, is on par or better than many of its closest partners.
The September 2014 joint statement had said that India and the US would “build an enduring partnership in which both sides treat each other at the same level as their closest partners, including defence technology transfers, trade, research, co-production and co-development”. Also, it had been agreed that the two sides would reinvigorate the political-military dialogue and expand its role to serve as a wider dialogue on export licensing and defence and strategic cooperation.
In addition to the renewal by another decade of the 2005 framework for the US-India defence relationship, the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative can be expected to focus on co-production and co-development of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones and the hardware and systems for the C-130 military transport aircraft.
However, Karnad dismisses all talk of technology transfer as “El Dorado”, implying India shouldn’t expect much from Washington on this count as the latter is so protective of its technologies that it does not share them with some of its most trusted NATO allies. He is also not particularly enthused by the prospects of cooperation on the much-ballyhooed Javelin anti-tank missile programme. A “clunker”, is how he chooses to describe it.
Karnad also cautions against signing any of the so-called foundational agreements such as Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation, Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Understanding (CISMOA) or the Logistics Support Agreement. “For instance, CISMOA requires communications interoperability, which means they can then go back and penetrate your entire communications system. Why would you trust even a friend, assuming, that is, the US is a friend?” asks Karnad.
A suggestion by some quarters for India to join the fight against the Islamic State (IS) is the new element in the contemporary discourse on India-US relations. It flows from the September 2014 India-US joint statement in which they “pledged to consult closely on global crises, especially unfolding events in Syria and Iraq”. It got a fillip when Modi discussed counter-terrorism with Kerry and certain other world leaders on the margins of the Vibrant Gujarat summit in Gandhinagar earlier this month. It found a mention in a speech he delivered on the occasion, too. “The time has come for all humanitarian forces to join together to resolve the problem of terrorism,” Modi had said. Yet, it remains to be seen how much room for manoeuvre Modi has on this issue, given the fact that the IS continues to hold nearly 40 Indians as hostages.
Notwithstanding the symbolism of Obama’s visit, there is still a long way to go towards making the India-US ties, to quote Obama when he visited India in 2010, “the defining partnership of the 21st century”. As Blackwill says, “repeated summit platitudes, while they reflect the fact that a stronger India is in America’s national interest, do not a strategic partnership make”.
For First Ladies, It’s Not Just About Fashion
So, what will Michelle Obama wear during her visit to India?
When she last visited India, it was November 2010 and the weather in New Delhi was deceptively clement. US First Lady Michelle Obama’s choice of monochrome full-sleeve tunics and shimmery satin skirts had fit well into the scheme of things then.
This time around, with Barack Obama being the first-ever US president to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade and a visit by
the couple to the Taj Mahal on the cards, Michelle’s sartorial choices will be under closer watch.
The Taj Mahal has routinely provided a stunning backdrop to visiting foreign dignitaries — from the once inseparable Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy to the unassuming Laura and George W Bush. The ‘monument to love’ is the perfect setting for the Obamas’ romantic, public outing.
While Michelle’s past preferences may have been dubbed offbeat and non-traditional, legendary American designer Oscar de la Renta regarded her as more than the US First Lady. “When you design clothes, you often think of a woman in general, but in this special case, that woman is larger than life. She will mean many different things to different people. She is an icon,” de la Renta had told the South China Morning Post in October 2014.
Elegant, larger-than-life, distinctive — Michelle wears all these adjectives as second skin. As did many US first ladies and spouses of other heads of state. Historically, first ladies have turned to designers who helped them project a pre-decided image or live up to a popular ideal. Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, was particularly fond of the corseted, frilly gowns that couturier Charles Frederick Worth had created for Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugenie.
In the 1980s, Yves Saint Laurent became the go-to guy for Raisa Gorbachev when she wanted to add a touch of glamour to her wardrobe and effect a shift in perception of the erstwhile USSR. In the 1970s, Vittoria Leone, wife of the Italian president Giovanni Leone, had happily lent a helping hand to homegrown talent such as Valentino Garavani.
While first ladies may variously be enthusiastic, indifferent, even nonchalant about their choice of attire, they are rarely unaware of its impact. Also, since they are not afforded the ‘invisibility’ available to a man, women with direct and indirect stakes in politics tread on the red-carpet with measured steps.
On the arms of their husbands, first ladies inevitably end up making a statement about the leader next to them, most likely in a dark suit and tie. From the Duma to the White House and from Whitehall to Zimbabwe, the immunity of a uniform is a distant luxury for these women.
Keeping the imperatives of protocol in mind, while in India, Michelle Obama can reserve a place among fashion royalty by making a few, bold choices with a definitive ethnic Indian touch. A kantha-work saree or an evening gown with a hint of patola are some safe options.
In the past, during her various public appearances, Michelle Obama has regularly opted for Indian designers. She wore a Bibhu Mohapatra outfit to the popular Jay Leno Show in 2012 and opted for a Rachel Roy dress during a state dinner in February 2014 for the then prime minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur. Designer Naeem Khan, a master of straight, opulent silhouettes, is her other favourite.