Barack Obama is in danger of reversing all the progress his predecessors, including George W. Bush, made in forging closer U.S. ties with India. Preoccupied with China and the Middle East, the Obama administration has allotted little room on its schedule for India, and failed to get much done in the short time it did make. Hosting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the November state visit, the administration managed to produce cordial photo ops, but the agreements reached on education, energy cooperation, and the like dealt with trivia.
Indian diplomats close to Singh say the lackluster results show how far the relationship has fallen since Bill Clinton and the two Bushes transformed a strained Cold War rivalry into a close strategic partnership between the world's largest democracies. Obama's predecessors built a relationship around trade negotiations, joint military exercises, and ad hoc coalitions for humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of the Indonesia tsunami. Despite his reputation for uniquely pushy diplomacy, it was George W. Bush who concluded the landmark deal that recognized India as a legitimate nuclear power and opened the door to the sale of civilian nuclear technology to India. No single American move has done more to demonstrate Washington's respect for New Delhi as a rising and equal power. Now Obama, who came to office promising to respect U.S. allies, is backpedaling on that deal, to the growing chagrin of the Indians.
Obama appears largely oblivious to India's concerns. When the U.S. gathered its allies in the Afghan war at a London summit in January, Indian officials felt they were marginalized because their views were not sought or paid heed to in any fashion. They were even more annoyed by U.S. declarations of a "new dawn" in relations with India's old adversary, Pakistan, and the apparent trust American officials now place in Pakistan's willingness to fight the Taliban, both at home and in Afghanistan. Their feeling is that top Obama advisers, like national-security adviser James Jones and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, have little experience in South Asia and have displayed remarkable naiveté in public statements.
More than once, Jones has argued that reducing Indo-Pakistani tensions would allow Pakistan to redeploy forces from its Indian border to the fight against the Taliban along the Afghan border. This is utterly fatuous in the view of Indian officials, who believe Pakistan is still dallying with the terrorists who target Indian interests in Kashmir and who orchestrated the devastating 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Despite all this, India has renewed talks with Pakistan and moved military personnel away from the de facto border in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir; Pakistan has yet to reciprocate. As a result, some officials in New Delhi are livid about Jones's remarks. Holbrooke triggered a similar reaction in early March: after Afghan Taliban killed a number of Indian workers in Kabul, he blithely stated that the victims were not targeted on the basis of their nationality. Indian officials publicly dismissed Holbrooke's remarks as uninformed. Behind the scenes, they see his comments as part of a larger pattern of Obama administration insensitivity toward India.
India won't wait indefinitely for the White House to put the relationship back on track. Instead, it is cutting deals with nations that respect its significance. Russia, which had let old Soviet ties to India wither, is now dramatically renewing the connection. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently visited India and went home with multiple agreements, including deals on civilian nuclear energy and more than $1.5 billion worth of advanced naval aircraft. Obama's inattention is what makes Russia's advance possible.
It's hard to understand why Washington would continue to neglect such a valuable ally. India is a vast and growing market, a significant military player in South Asia, a growing force in global talks on climate change and nuclear nonproliferation. So instead of ignoring or publicly upbraiding India, Washington needs to find a way to avoid the acutely sensitive issue of Kashmir, while enhancing counterterrorism cooperation and actively seeking India's input into the larger discussion on Afghanistan. Doing so will help secure Washington's relationship with a nation that is too important to keep on the sidelines.