India and the US: It’s time to inhale (Sunday Guardian)
MADHAV NALAPAT New Delhi | 24th Jan 2015
A worker places an American flag on a flag pole in New Delhi on Friday. US President Barack Obama is the first American president to attend India’s annual Republic Day festivities marked on 26 January. PTI
In a rainbow world, India's policymakers continue to view situations through a black or white prism. Although — or perhaps because — several within the decision-making fraternity in Lutyens' Delhi have children studying in the US, that country is viewed with suspicion and more than a tinge of exasperation. Some of the negativity is deserved. The US administration works tirelessly to smother India's generic medicines industry for the benefit of exactly six pharma giants located on both sides of the Atlantic, while it seeks immunity for US suppliers for any malfunction in the nuclear equipment supplied by them, thereby creating a perfect incentive for overseas nuclear power companies to make the 1.26 billion citizens of India guinea pigs for experiments in reactor design and safety.
What gets ignored in discussions in India is that such behaviour is in considerable part because of the refusal by successive regimes in Delhi to act as an ally rather than simply put up a smokescreen of talk. In 2003, then National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra ensured that the Atal Behari Vajpayee government rejected Washington's request that a division of troops be posted in the Kurdish regions of Iraq. Indeed, Mishra spread the vicious smear that the small group of strategic experts calling for such participation were "CIA stooges", although he knew well that such a characterisation was unjust. Had the Prime Minister's Office complied with the request, not only the global profile of India, but this country's ability to ensure oil supplies (from the Kurdish regions) would have been significantly enhanced, but that was not to be. More recently, during Prime Minister Modi's visit to New York and Washington, there were indications that the Obama administration would welcome India's participation in the military campaign against the Islamic State going on in Syria and Iraq. Such a campaign could have been launched independently of NATO, for India could have acted in concert with the governments in place in Damascus and Baghdad than with Brussels, but here as well, any hint of tangible action on the ground to back up the flow of words against global terror was avoided, in a context where several of the countries now close to India geopolitically are already in the field. Clearly, the establishment in India, to use the phrase made popular by Bill Clinton, is willing to smoke but not to inhale.
The 25-27 January meetings between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama have the potential to be as significant in world affairs as the 1972 meeting between President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong. But for this, both the heads of government will need to go beyond the limits set by their respective bureaucracies. Modi will need to end the decade-long vacillation over signing the Communications Safety as well as the Logistics agreement, of course on reciprocal terms. Obama will have to defy the pharma and "Fortress America" lobbies in the US to ensure that the generic medicines industry in India becomes a component in his plan to render affordable universal healthcare in the US, an impossibility otherwise.
Should both challenge their naysayers and live up to the idealism they exuded on the campaign trail, the Modi-Obama meeting of the next three days could ensure what has the potential to be the transformational relationship of at least this half of the 21st century.