The Bush years were a good time for relations between the world's two biggest democracies. After years of suspicion and tensions, India and the U.S. finally began to explore common ground, a shift that culminated in a breakthrough deal that opens the way for India to import civilian nuclear technology despite the facts that it refuses to sign the nuclear-nonproliferation treaty and it has twice tested nuclear weapons.
The Obama Administration seems intent on keeping that atmosphere of cooperation going. In a speech and question-and-answer session at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who began a five-day visit to India Friday, July 17, signaled a push to deepen relations further. "We are delighted that our two countries will be engaging in a very broad, comprehensive dialogue," Clinton said. "It's the most wide-ranging that I think has ever been put on the table between India and the United States. It has six pillars to it, one of which, of course, is foreign policy, strategic challenges, along with ... other matters like health, and education, and agriculture and the economy ... We believe India has a tremendous opportunity and a growing responsibility, which they acknowledge, to play not just a regional role but a global one as well."
In New Delhi, though, the feeling is one of caution more than enthusiasm. Senior Indian officials believe Washington's attention is now more focused on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, and fret that India will be forgotten or worse, actively ignored over the next few years. It doesn't help that Clinton arrives in India as the two countries quibble over a horde of issues from trade talks at the WTO to climate-change negotiations, from nuclear nonproliferation to how best to deal with Pakistan. "India has invested a lot in this relationship, often at the cost of other relationships," says former diplomat Rajiv Sikri. "India wants to be assured that the U.S. sees its point of view and factors it in."
The nuclear agreement remains key. While both sides want to move forward on implementing the deal, enough legal hurdles remain to slow progress. U.S. regulators have not licensed American firms to share certain high-end technologies with India, for instance, while New Delhi has yet to pass a law to limit the liability of American nuclear companies in case of an accident, without which they cannot compete with state-owned rivals from Russia and France that enjoy sovereign liability protection.
At the G-8 summit in Italy last week, the U.S. persuaded other big nations to prohibit the transfer of enrichment and reprocessing technologies to countries that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including an infuriated India. The Obama Administration also continues to emphasize its commitment to nuclear disarmament and is pushing India to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. New Delhi has always favored universal disarmament and is unlikely to give in now.
Then there is Pakistan and terrorism. India is dismayed by Obama's new policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, which it sees as simply more of the same pouring money into Islamabad while propping up a largely ineffective regime. At a meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Reza Gilani on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Egypt this week, both sides agreed that dialogue was the way forward to resolve problems. But India expects the U.S. to force Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of last November's terrorist attacks on Mumbai to justice. "India is open to dialogue and discussion," says Major General Dipankar Banerjee, director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. "But Pakistan must account that it has done enough based on the evidence from India, the U.K. and the U.S."
Little is likely to be resolved on Clinton's trip. But the visit will set the agenda for Prime Minister Singh's visit to Washington later this year. The key will be changing Indian perceptions that an Obama White House will somehow be less friendly toward India. "What Clinton is going to do is clear the fog," says Lalit Mansingh, a former ambassador of India to Washington and now a New Delhibased foreign-affairs analyst. "There's been a long gap between high-level contact, and a lot of misunderstanding and mistrust has crept in on whether the Obama Administration is as committed to the U.S.'s relations with India as the Bush Administration was. Clinton will reassure India going ahead." That's the plan, at least.