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Obama visit to repair glitches in US-India relations

The US’ relations with India have mostly been flat for the past few years – “flat as a chapatti“, to use a phrase once used by Robert Blackwill, former US ambassador to India. When President Barack Obama visits India on Sunday and holds talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, some of the disrepair is likely to be addressed with some briskness.

Ennui is easier to drive out if there is a supporting environment. In this case, there are several sticking points – the fact that the US did not have an ambassador in New Delhi for months until Richard Verma was appointed a few weeks ago, and the treatment Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade got from the New York Police Department, are not the only issues. There are bigger ones pointing to lack of communication, a warp in the vision of the world.

At a recent public event, the US bluntly spoke about what had annoyed it. When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited India, part of his delegation, and large as life, was Sergey Aksyonov, the leader of Crimea, a former Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia.

Aksyonov was elected in a closed session of regional Parliament, after Russian forces took control of the Crimean peninsula in a bloodless operation in February. He presided over a referendum to join Russia which was recognised by Moscow. Kiev and the West say it was rigged.

It was clear Aksyonov’s visit enjoyed Russia’s full diplomatic backing, with the consul general to Mumbai and an aide to Ambassador Alexander Kadakin present at the meeting and lunch with businessmen. He tweeted he had come to India as “a member of the delegation under the leadership of the president of the Russian federation, Vladimir Putin”.

The US was upset that India, which does not back western sanctions on Russia, was part of tacit endorsement of Russian actions in Ukraine. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was equally firm that India would not be guided when choosing its friends; he said at the BRICS meeting in Brazil: “If you ask anyone among the more than one billion people living in India who is our country’s greatest friend, every person, every child knows it is Russia.”

India might have deliberately ignored the Aksyonov episode. But did it have to be quite as supportive of Iran’s nuclear programme as it was, asked US speakers at the meeting.

This is not a new concern. India has been asked to prove its loyalty to the US by siding with Washington at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Bush administration had clearly said if India voted against the February 2006 US motion on Iran at the IAEA, the Congress would likely not approve the Indo-US nuclear agreement. The then Representative Tom Lantos threatened India “will pay a heavy price for a disregard of US concerns vis-a-vis Iran”. Though India voted alongside the US on UN resolutions on Iran, many in the US Congress said the Indo-US civil nuclear deal must not be allowed to go through till New Delhi ended all military relations with Teheran. The nuclear deal was signed regardless, but India’s relations with Iran continue to be an irksome reminder of the divergence in the Indo-US view of the world.

India says it wants to keep its own national interests in mind: At the meeting, a former foreign secretary pointed out that the US kept pushing India to side with democratic forces in Myanmar – until it make a U-turn and did a deal with the generals itself. On multilateral issues like climate change, the US warned India was in danger of being isolated – even the US and China had reached an agreement. India retorted it was doing what it thought was right for the world, and not playing instrumentalist politics.

There is a similar divergence of views on world trade and approaches to rules.

The bilateral differences are many. But the principal among those is the liability clause in the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement. India has made it clear the US will have to accept liability rules on an ‘as is where is’ basis, because any amendment in the liability law is impossible. After having done all the heavy lifting on India’s behalf at IAEA, the US feels New Delhi needs to be more attuned to the requirements of American business. There are also gentle enquiries about whether the 126 MMRCA (in which both US bidders Lockheed Martin and Boeing were rejected) is a done deal, or if there is still scope for negotiation.

Of the two other concerns that will dog talks, one is permanent and the other an extension – Pakistan and Afghanistan. The wording of the joint statement will indicate how far the US and India will come to meet each other halfway.

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will on the afternoon of January 26 address the US-India CEO Forum

Members of the forum

Cyrus Mistry
Chairman, Tata Sons, (co-chair from India side)

Mukesh Ambani
Chairman & managing director, Reliance Industries

Sunil Mittal
Chairman and group CEO, Bharti Enterprises

Chanda Kochhar
Managing director & CEO, ICICI Bank

Vishal Sikka
Managing director & CEO, Infosys

Anil Ambani
Chairman, Reliance Group

Gautam Adani
Chairman, Adani Group

Shashi Ruia
Chairman, Essar Group

Anand Mahindra
Chairman & MD, Mahindra Group

Hari Bhartia
Co-chairman & managing director, Jubilant

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw
Chairman and MD, Biocon

Arundhati Bhattacharya
Chairman, SBI

Dinesh K Sarraf
Chairman and MD, ONGC

B Prasada Rao
Chairman & MD, BHEL

Sudhir Mehta
Chairman emeritus, Torrent Pharma

David M Cote
Chairman and CEO, Honeywell,

(Co-chair from US side)

Indra Nooyi
CEO, Pepsico

Harold McGraw
Chairman, McGraw Hill Financial

Ajay Banga
CEO, MasterCard


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