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Indo-US ties

Get on with the real deal

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Indo-US ties hinge upon partnerships in areas that concern the common man.

Amazing ! The US secretary of state in India for a "strategic dialogue" and it barely stayed on the front pages of newspapers for more than a couple of days. Is the India-US relationship in trouble? We all miss the nuclear deal. The excitement of even the most difficult negotiations gave a zip to bilateral exchanges. But just as we were not prepared for the enormity of the nuclear deal, we are not ready for the subsequent years of dreary engagement, which is our lot at present. We're having withdrawal symptoms about the "prozac moment" in the relationship.

Frankly, this is the real deal - agriculture, education, health, cyber security, environment etc. It's this cooperation that makes the real difference to Indians as opposed to the supposedly "sexy" matter of nuclear "liability" that is arcane and the stuff of politically motivated reporting. The relationship may be losing its pizzazz because of two things: a lack of political push from both sides and an institutional mistrust that continues to overshadow relations. The reasons for the first are not far to seek - in the US, Barack Obama is in the middle of a bruising economic battle, which has implications for his re-election. The deeply polarised politics of Washington makes ours look almost convivial. America's traditional allies from Europe to Japan and Pakistan are all in the suds;almost all US wars somehow end up as ill-conceived ventures;and China is a rising challenge the US doesn't really know how to deal with.

On the Indian side, the picture is just as bleak - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi are sitting atop a government that has given new meaning to the terms "governance deficit" and "policy paralysis". Quite apart from the domestic sector, India's foreign policy almost across the board has been reduced to mindless babble. It's only because our economy - which thankfully functions despite the government - is moving along at a steady clip that anybody bothers to take us seriously.

The second obstacle to better relations with the US is more difficult to counter. The US has never really tried to build close ties with a rising power like India, which is civilisationally brahminical in its outlook. Thus we are prickly, opinionated, unwilling to accept mistakes, or change direction because someone else says so. So, the US finds it extraordinarily difficult to get India to do things it wants. That's very frustrating for a superpower that's so used to getting its own way with other nations. During the first Gulf War, when the US wanted India to give it overflight facilities, a demarche to India citing the relevant UNSC provisions was summarily rejected by the ministry of external affairs. The then foreign secretary told the Americans to approach India as a friend, not with a UN "threat". Washington came back with an overflight request from a "friend";India gave it instantly and willingly. It's an anecdote Washington will do well to remember.

On the Indian side, we're constantly battling the perception that the US is having us on. Our government is always worried that through all that sharp talk and beguiling charm, the Americans actually want to take over our system, rule our minds, and take our decisions for us. A related problem within the Indian system is a misplaced sense of entitlement, which starts with the premise that the US owes us because we topped moral science class. Any question of reciprocity is looked upon as kowtowing to "American pressure. "

It's an old-fashioned virtue to be modest. But the India of 2011 is not the India of 1991. We are a confident nation, though maybe not a confident governing establishment. We have global ambitions. We want to balance China in Asia. We want to be the pre-eminent power in the Indian Ocean region. Primarily, we want to raise the Indian socio-economic game to a different level. The Indian people believe we can do it. The Indian government is not so sure.

Therefore, it was interesting that Hillary Clinton spoke in Chennai about the projection of India's power. The US, she said, wants India to be more assertive in East and West Asia, in Central and South Asia. Far away from the stultifying power corridors of New Delhi, she and every other outsider sees India being built. Everyday. Thanks to this strange mixture of reverse snobbery and arrogance that the Indian system ritually practises, India is in danger of becoming the global shrinking violet. In real terms, it means passing up on opportunities that present themselves to us.

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