India's High Hopes for Obama's November Visit

President Obama with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in July 2009. Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP

President Obama’s first state visit to India looms large on the horizon. Since he took office in 2009, U.S. relations with India have been marked by some tension, and many in New Delhi had hoped the visit would help allay a range of concerns. Sadly, these hopes are now diminishing, and even thoughtful observers are privately stating that the visit will improve the political atmosphere of the bilateral relationship, but not the substance.

One big reason for this is that India has failed to fully grasp the meaning and significance of a strategic partnership. Indian elites have a litany of demands they would like the Obama administration to fulfill. They have loudly proclaimed that Washington must move with dispatch to remove a host of Indian firms from the “entity list” that constrains the transfer of a range of potentially dual-use technologies to India. A significant segment of the Indian elite also remains fixated on the fraught terms of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and how it affects India’s security concerns, so they insist the U.S. increase its pressure against Pakistan to end that country’s dalliance with a host of jihadi terrorist organizations. Finally, India’s foreign-policy elite wants the Obama administration to squarely support the nation’s longstanding quest for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

At one level, these demands are hardly unreasonable. The stringency, and on occasion the seeming capriciousness, of U.S. export-control regulations is a genuine source of irritation in this relationship. Similarly, India does have a legitimate interest in ending Pakistan’s ability and willingness to rely on terrorist organizations to pursue its perceived national-security goals. Finally, it is not unreasonable for New Delhi to solicit the administration’s support for a Security Council seat given India’s growing standing in international affairs. But for all these demands and expectations, New Delhi appears to be unwilling and unable to address American interests and concerns.

In this context, while seeking relief from U.S. high-technology export controls, the Indian Parliament passed a nuclear-liability bill in August that all but scuttled the many mutual benefits of the U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement. Sadly, few within India’s foreign and security-policy circles have the slightest clue about the damage the passage of this legislation has done to the level of trust in this emerging strategic partnership. Similarly, given the costs that India has borne as a consequence of Pakistan’s feckless involvement with terror, it is hardly surprising that it seeks to bring American pressure to bear on this recalcitrant neighbor. Yet berating the U.S. overlooks the fact that the U.S. provided critical assistance to India in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai of November 2008. It also shows a lack of appreciation of the access that the U.S. has given India to the confessed terrorist, the Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley, who had conducted the surveillance for the attacks.

Finally, the Indian expectation that Obama explicitly proffer support for India’s quest for a permanent Security Council seat is also not unreasonable. However, such a demand fails to take into account serious American concerns about such a gesture. India’s stance on a host of issues of concern to the U.S. at the Security Council and in the General Assembly, however reasonable from its own standpoint, gives the Obama administration pause about explicitly supporting India’s aspirations. More to the point, what is India prepared to bring to the table as a quid pro quo for such support? To this, India’s foreign-policy elites have no clear-cut answer.

All these contentious issues are emblematic of a deeper malaise that afflicts the relationship. India’s key policymakers need to realize that the construction and sustenance of a stable strategic partnership requires a particular sensitivity to the vital principle of reciprocity. Their failure to do so stems in part from a prickly sense of independence, deep-seated fears of American unreliability, and a degree of residual anti-Americanism. It remains to be seen if in the month ahead India’s policymakers manage to change course and offer concrete proposals that show how this strategic partnership can be one of mutual benefit.

Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington, is currently a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

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