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Hype of India-US ties Can’t Mask Underlying Tensions

The US state department’s observations last week on the arrest of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal and the income-tax notices issued to the Congress party are only the latest signals of a deteriorating relationship.
Narendra Modi and Joe Biden. Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi

It is now a widely accepted view in India and the United States that the bilateral relationship between the two democracies is of great importance to both. Everyone may not agree with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s view that the two countries are “natural allies” nor share President Barack Obama’s optimism that their relationship “will be one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century”, but few in India will disagree that ensuring the relationship stays on an even keel is in India’s interest. It is not just as a hedge against a rising China that India needs a productive partnership with the United States. There are any number of reasons why over the past quarter century successive leaders in both countries have sought to nurture the relationship. It is, therefore, surprising that of late the relationship appears to be in free fall.

The US state department’s observations last week on the arrest of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal by the Enforcement Directorate and on the income-tax notices issued to the Congress Party, that too in the run-up to the coming Lok Sabha elections, are only the latest signals of a deteriorating relationship. That the state department chose to virtually ignore the summons from South Block on the Kejriwal remark and next day went on to add concerns about the treatment of the Congress Party suggests that Washington DC is sending a clear message to India and the world. Spin doctoring has already started with some suggesting that all this is part of the electoral game in both countries, aimed at domestic audiences, and will not make a difference to the bilateral relationship.

However, these remarks come on top of earlier officially stated concerns about human rights violations and religious freedom in India. Those in turn came on top of President Joe Biden declining the invitation to be the chief guest at this year’s Republic Day parade.

The last high point in the relationship was when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited for a much-publicised state visit to Washington DC in the summer of 2023. In exchange for India running up a bill of several billion dollars buying defence equipment, the US Congress agreed to honour Mr Modi with a second invitation to address it. The publicly celebratory mood at the time was marred by concerns within the Indian government about President Biden raising the issue of the murder of a Sikh separatist leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Canada and apparently accepting the Canadian view that Indian officialdom had something to do with it.

Then came the whopper. In November 2023, US government sources not only leaked to the media that President Biden shared “credible” allegations linking Indian agents to the murder of Nijjar, but that an Indian citizen, Nikhil Gupta, may have been involved in a failed murder attempt on American soil. The target was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, also a “Khalistani” activist. A US statement suggested that Gupta had acted under instructions of a “senior field officer” in India who had responsibilities in “security management” and “intelligence”.

In a different India, this would have been a far more sensational news resulting in many heads rolling. But in today’s India the media downplayed the story and even the final Indian government statement conceding that a “rogue agent” had been involved. Many retired government spooks have said that “such things happen”. The point, however, is not that such things happen but that the US went public over it, forcing acceptance by a government in denial. The diplomatic fallout of all this must have wiped out all the happy memories of all those who enjoyed that sumptuous meal at the White House last June.

Many in the Sangh Parivar and among the Modi bhakts in India and the US imagine that President Biden is on his way out and things would get better when Donald Trump returns to the White House. While there is no reason to assume that one administration would be more friendly than another, since all governments pursue the national interest, it is anybody’s guess where India would stand in the Trump scheme of things in his second term. The world is changing and changing fast.

This is precisely why the Indian diplomatic and political leadership has nurtured and managed the US-India relationship with care. The last time that Mr Modi and Mr Biden had any substantial conversation was six months ago, in September 2023 at the time of the G-20 Summit in New Delhi. If a Quad summit had been convened, the two would have met, but the Quad now appears to be in a limbo.

Also read: Full Text: What Is the India-US Relationship Based on Today?

During the talks in January on trade policy issues between commerce minister Piyush Goyal and US trade representative Katherine Tai there was some meeting of minds but differences on larger trade policy issues came to the fore at the World Trade Organisation’s Abu Dhabi ministerial meeting in February. The US remains unhappy with the resurgent protectionism in India and India remains unhappy with US unilateralism in trade. While many analysts in both countries constantly use terms such as “cooperation” when referring to defence “relations”, the relationship is first and foremost about “sales”. Without the “sales”, the “cooperation” would remain limited.

To add grist to the diplomatic speculation mill, not only has India not named a new ambassador to the United States but it now pays little attention to the US ambassador in New Delhi. Time was when doors in South Block readily opened to a US ambassador. We now have the think-tankers in the government’s extended intellectual arms taunting the “mayor from Hollywood”. How would the world be reading all this?

Someone in South Block may have prepared a note, as one must, on that question since perceptions about the state of US-India relations do shape other bilateral relations.

Diplomatic observers have noticed that there has been a drop in the traffic between Foggy Bottom and Raisina Hill this year. With both Mr Modi and Mr Biden now pre-occupied with their own re-election, it is unlikely that any initiative would be taken at the highest levels in both capitals in the near future. By the time the long drawn electoral process in India is over, the US will go into election season. Neither country should allow the relationship to go into a nine-month limbo.

Sanjaya Baru is an economist, a former newspaper editor, a best-selling author, and former adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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