At a time when the United States and Russia are engaged in a potentially dangerous eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation over the Ukraine crisis, Washington seems to have launched a virtual “charm offensive” to tempt the new government in India to enter into a long-term strategic partnership. Top policymakers of the Obama administration have been visiting New Delhi in recent weeks, and the US administration seems to be leaving no stone unturned to ensure India enters its fold. NRI Achievers reports on this late-breaking story …
None other than John Kerry, the globe-trotting US Secretary of State arrived on a three-day mission in late July to establish personal rapport with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj, exchange pleasantries with PM Modi and also participate in a high-profile conference where he made a persuasive pitch for closer Indo-US ties. When the former presidential candidate decides to turn on the charm, he can be quite devastating. Here is an example of his way with words, excerpted from a speech in Washington on the eve of his India visit: “Imagine that you are in a room together with the top hundred foreign policy thinkers in America and you asked them to name the most important relationships for the United States, which will most affect the direction of the 21st century. I can guarantee you this: Every single one of them would rank the US-India relationship right up there in the top tier.” Also landing in New Delhi was US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. Her official agenda was to address the Indo- US Strategic Dialogue to boost commercial ties. She appears to made a deep impact on those who met her, including top bureaucrats and captains of industry. Importantly, the Indian side came to know her better at a personal level, and to sense that there is something special about Penny Sue Pritzker. She has a personal wealth of 2.4 Billion dollars. She is the Hyatt Hotel chain heiress, and one of the original Silicon Valley elites. She’s known as the “start-up queen” for the numerous successful business ventures that she has built from scratch. At a personal level, there’s another side to Ms Pritzker. She has had to fight every step of the way up the ladder of success. Her entire family was against her when she demanded a stake in the Hyatt business – they felt a woman’s place was at home. After a bitter battle she won but forever lost the love of her two younger brothers whom she had brought up after their alcoholic mother died young. Her life has been full of other hurdles and controversies as well. But she has invariably came out on top with a laser-sharp intellect, her Shakuntala Devi like mental math ability and her tough-as-nails endurance. She has run eight marathon road races, always making it to the finishing line even the time her foot was bleeding after stepping on a broken glass bottle.
In early August, the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will be the next to come calling. He too is no run-of-themill politician. The fact that he was given the Defense portfolio by President Obama last year despite being a member of the Republican Party tells its own story, especially since the Republicans fought tooth and nail to prevent him joining the White House team. A war hero (two Purple Hearts from Vietnam), Hagel had a very successful career in business before joining politics. Significantly, he was the cofounder of a digital technology company which went on to become the world’s foremost manufacturer of Electronic Voting Machines, of the kind that was used in India’s recent Lok Sabha elections that the BJP won by an incredible victory margin. Charles Timothy “Chuck” Hagel, to give his full name, has another claim to fame – he never hesitates to speak his mind. Despite being a Republican, he opposed the Bush Administration’s War on Iraq policy in 2005 by declaring: “To question your government is not unpatriotic – to not question your government is unpatriotic”. Again, in 2006, he criticized Bush’s handling of the Lebanon War by saying: “The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now. The President must call for an immediate cease-fire. Our relationship with Israel is special and historic, But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That would be an irresponsible and dangerous false choice”. In the context of the Modi government’s own policy dilemma over the Israel-Hamas war in the Gaza Strip, where over a thousand innocent civilians have so far been killed, there may be lessons to draw from Hagel’s stand. These visits, and the ones earlier in July by Kerry’s deputy William Burns and Republican Senator John McCain, are evidently intended to build up the tempo for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States and a possible gamechanging meeting with President Barack Obama in September. Indeed, of late there has been a flurry of activity among US officials dealing with Asian and South Asian affairs. America is evidently keen to revitalize relations with India on all fronts – political, trade and defense. Washington views India as a “crucial counterbalance” in Asia to an increasingly assertive China. Apart from that, with Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at loggerheads over Moscow’s role in the Ukrainian crisis, the US is looking to win over India’s new Prime Minister. An indication of the pro-India sentiment within Washington is echoed in a television interview given by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is tipped to be a front-runner in the next presidential elections. It provided a glimpse of the importance American leaders give to India in the geo-political context visà- vis China. “Look at the difference between India and China”, she told the interviewer, “China has this top- down, very clear, orderly approach toward economic development, and India has this massive subcontinent with all these different people speaking all these different languages. Each in its own way is a triumph. India is a triumph of a unified political nation and China has been triumphant in moving people out of poverty. But in the long run, who has the better system ? And if India can now get its act together on the economy, it would be an extraordinary accomplishment because it would then be both politically and economically successful”. This is as clear an articulation of America’s admiration for Indian democracy as one can hope for, especially since Clinton mentioned this in answer to a question that had nothing to do with either India or China. In the event of Hillary Clinton getting elected as the next US President in 2016, a possibility that nobody is ruling out, her positive views of India as a rising Asian power could prove mutually beneficial. This basic theme echoes what Nisha Biswal, US asst. secretary of state for South Asia, stated while testifying before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. She quoted President Obama as having said that the US-India relationship would be “one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century.” She also quoted Narendra Modi having told William Burns last week that the “whole world would benefit from closer US-India ties”. Nisha Biswal spoke at length on Indo- US relations. She said: “Across the board we have an opportunity to engage more robustly with India”. She referred to planned joint military exercises involving India, the United States and Japan, a country with a growing strategic rivalry with China in East Asia. “We see opportunities for increasing the collaboration across Southeast Asia,” she said. “We are engaging more frequently in consultations and dialogue with India on ASEAN and look forward to increased and more frequent consultations across the East Asian sphere”.
Foreign policy mandarins in New Delhi have noted the subtle new dimension to Washington’s perspective. No longer are the Americans only looking at India in the South Asian context; they are talking of a convergent strategic interest is “across the Asian landscape”. Interestingly, geo-strategic analysts in the United States are giving high marks to Modi for inviting regional SAARC leaders to his inauguration. This, they feel, demonstrates his commitment to strengthening India’s ties within its immediate region and beyond. As the State Department has stated, “we see a partnership with India that spans east, west, north, and south to advance our shared interests across the Indo-Pacific region. Our collaboration on counter-terrorism and homeland security has grown tremendously in the past several years”. It is the considered view of US policy makers that the new Indian Prime Minister has visions of emerging as a major Asian leader. The United States is getting set to give him all the support and encouragement he needs to fulfill that personal ambition. The key question now is how warmly Narendra Modi responds to such overtures and whether he grasps the hand of friendship that is been offered to him.