By C Uday Bhaskar
US Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent visit to India (July 22-25) may not have led to any major breakthrough, but provided a valuable opportunity to renew the high-level political contact between the two countries at a time when there is some concern in India that the Obama administration is not paying adequate attention to the bilateral relationship.
Traditionally US vice presidents (VP) have a relatively marginal role in the larger matrix of US policy making, and there is a quip that the position though high on ceremonial status is largely irrelevant. The VP is relevant to the extent that the incumbent is ‘a heartbeat or a scandal away from the White House’ – meaning that if, hypothetically, the US president were to die in office or be forced to step down, the VP is automatically elevated to the White House. The most dramatic recall is that of then VP Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as US president following the tragic assassination of John Kennedy in November 1963. Subsequently, Gerald Ford as VP was sworn in as president in August 1974 following the impeachment of President Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal.
Over the years some US VPs have been inconsequential, but since the time George Bush senior served as Ronald Reagan’s VP and then moved into the White House in 1989, successive VPs have assumed policy relevant roles and both Al Gore and Dick Cheney are case in point. Biden is following that pattern and brings enormous value addition to the Obama White House. A folksy politician with considerable grassroots appeal, Biden has had a long innings as a Senator and played an important role in enabling the rapprochement in India-US relations – particularly in relation to the 2008 civilian nuclear cooperation agreement.
In the current visit, VP Biden met with his counterpart Hamid Ansari, as also Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pranab Mukherjee and the emphasis was on three areas – political, security and strategic and economic-trade related. The last area was the focus of the Mumbai leg of the Biden visit where he met with corporate India.
The essence of the Biden message is contained in his remarks in Mumbai where he noted: “I would ask you to consider the historic opportunity that we have here…imagine what our two countries can achieve together, not only for one another but for the economic and political stability of the region.”
Despite the dramatic rearrangement of the bilateral relationship in late 2008 under the Bush-Singh stewardship (when the estrangement over the nuclear issue was consensually resolved), India-US ties have been adrift due to a combination of circumstances – primarily the global economic downturn since 2009 and the deteriorating economic and fiscal health of both countries – and the related pre-occupation of the political leadership with their domestic priorities.
Against this backdrop, the Biden visit is welcome and provides an opportunity to both review bilateral ties and hit the reset button. While the US has its heavyweight political representatives who were committed to the India relationship – for instance Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and now Joe Biden – it is difficult to identify a similar spectrum in the fragmented Indian political leadership.
The 2008 civilian nuclear agreement was realized in an almost furtive and apologetic manner on the Indian side, and it is to the credit of Prime Minister Singh that in the very last lap – he stood his ground and was willing to stake his office to stay the course. Regrettably in UPA II – major political actors, including cabinet ministers, have chosen to remain ambiguous about how they wish to take the bilateral forward, and have left it to the bureaucracy and the corporate leaders to define the contours of the relationship. Where political leaders have taken a position, it has been more in the neti neti (Sanskrit for ‘not this, not that’ ) mode and have played up to the gallery in stoking latent anxiety about the purported nefarious and overbearing US design to inveigle or exploit India. This has been most evident in the defence and security domain where there is opaque diffidence instead of objective clarity about how to maximize the relationship post 2008.
In short, there is no Biden equivalent in the Indian political spectrum, and Prime Minister Singh is too beleaguered and lacks the political support he needs to pursue certain long term strategic objectives. India is currently preparing for its next general election, and the received wisdom is that an uneasy coalition will form the next government in Delhi. Regional parties are likely to play a critical role in the forming of the next government, and hence there is need for deep introspection by this leadership about how India’s long term strategic and security interests will be served apropos the relationship with the USA.
The Biden visit drew attention to the economic and trade dimension and highlighted the fact that very soon India will reach a $100 billion trade figure with the USA, and this will be comparable with that with China – both in quantum and imbalance. Yes there are areas of divergence whether related to WTO, protectionism, intellectual property rights, lack of market access, visa protocols and foreign investment regulation among others, but this is to be expected. However, market forces, officials and corporate professionals on both sides are engaged in finding a way forward.
Regrettably, this is not the case when it comes to the security and strategic domain. Here again there are major divergences, particularly with respect to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran in the immediate context. China is a case of both sides hedging their options, though the fact that Delhi was trying to deal with the latest Chinese army incursion during the Biden visit has its own sub-text.
The Indian security apex has to evolve a long term blueprint, with appropriate political backing, that is bipartisan, about how to engage equitably with both the USA and China and manage this complex triangular relationship in such manner that legitimate national aspirations are realized, while deep-seated anxieties are assuaged or effectively quarantined.
Biden’s observation that “There is no contradiction between strategic autonomy and a strategic partnership …….global powers are capable of both” merits careful review and consideration for its policy implications by the Indian polity.