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Comment

Change matters

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Considering where ties are at, India regards Barack Obama’s naming his new team with some nonchalance.

There is a new team out there in Washington. Amazingly, Indians are not jumping through the hoops about the whos, whys and wherefores of the new Obama administration. To some, that may show a degree of disconnectedness with the Obama administration - true, to some extent, because with the Obamians, India has had a more transactional relationship, certainly in the past four years. 

There may not have been the bear hug of the Bush years, but it's not been a bear run either. That's probably why to many others, it's a reflection that the India-US relationship has acquired depth and breadth, almost imperceptibly, of the kind that makes it difficult for stray individuals to make substantial changes for the worse.

Obama became one of those rare creatures - a US president to visit India in his first term. Frankly, despite his having shown an intellectual understanding of the value and weaknesses of this nation, when the India-US strategic dialogue is held in Washington DC, you can be sure that Manmohan Singh can, if he so wants, hold an Indian cabinet meeting in that city!

Having said that, we will miss the only person in the outgoing Obama team who had a "feel" for India. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, articulated Obama's vision of the US pivot best in Chennai, where she exhorted India to take the pole position in Asia. For her efforts, scaredy-cat strategists among the Indian chattering classes pilloried her for daring to suggest that India should "lead" !

In her four years, Clinton tried to push the frontiers of the relationship. But even she sighed her frustration at the Manmohan Singh government's inefficiency and paralysis - unable to deal with SM Krishna's vagueness, Clinton had to lobby to include NSA Shivshankar Menon as one of her prime interlocutors.

What does Obama's new team look like? Well, we have John Kerry at state. And while Clinton's strategic sense was almost visionary. Kerry is woolly at best. Kerry comes to the job believing that the US has to engage with Pakistan, which, in our part of the world, which translates to overlooking Pakistan's trespasses while swallowing the Pak army line on military aid, controlling the next government in Afghanistan, etc. Remember the Kerry-Lugar Bill, which Ashfaq Kayani famously blackballed for being "peanuts" ?

The only thing we might be able to do, probably successfully, is out-talk him. The next strategic dialogue should be fun - Kerry, as anyone who knows him will tell you, is one of those who can talk endlessly. The only person who can outdo him is our own Salman Khurshid, who is almost unsurpassable in that department!

Chuck Hagel as the new defense secretary will be more concerned with getting America out of wars like Afghanistan. He might also want to reduce America's nuclear footprint as well as its drones programme. John Brennan, Obama's new CIA chief, formerly his top counter-terrorism adviser, may have other ideas, since he has been the principal architect of Obama's stepped up drones warfare. Who will prevail? Watch this space, but my hunch is Obama will run as tight a foreign policy ship this time round as well.

Look out for the national security adviser, Tom Donilon. Donilon represents continuity in the new Obama team, has been close to Obama and is familiar to the Indian security leadership.
But the buzz is Donilon might be a short-lived NSA - in about a year or two, Donilon is expected to make way for Obama's close friend, confidante and strategic adviser behind the scenes - Susan Rice. She's the person to watch. Rice could not be confirmed for secretary of state due to the madness in Benghazi. But that will not diminish her influence on Obama or his national security decisions.
Viewed from here today, what can we predict for the next four years?

Obama does not have to worry about another election. So he is free of that political burden. The American economy will be and ought to be his priority. On the foreign policy front, he will continue to try to keep America out of costly overseas wars, particularly in Islamic countries.

But he also wants to keep terrorists from al- Qaeda and Taliban out of action, preferably out of this world. Its logical to expect that covert special ops against terrorists and drones might be sustained. But he also needs to get out of Afghanistan, fast. So Pakistan and the needs of Pak army chief, Ashraf Kayani might also come in handy.

And India? Well, there is always the "pivot" to Asia, which has now been renamed "rebalancing. " Leon Panetta wanted India to be the linchpin of the pivot. India India's nuclear liability law will continue to stick in American throats. India desperately wants defence technology, but Americans are not about to give such precious stuff to Indian defence PSUs. The US might leave Afghanistan to its devices and India will be forced to befriend Iran to keep Pakistan and its Taliban satellites out. On the other hand, the US and India want the same thing in Afghanistan.

In other words, c'est la vie.

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