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INDIA-US: Thorny Times Ahead Despite Nuclear Deal

Analysis by Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, May 29 2009 (IPS) - Although Manmohan Singh, the man who steered through the landmark Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal, has been voted back to power, there is little sign that his second term as prime minister will see the same geniality between the world’s two major democracies.

The nuclear deal and closer ties with the U.S. were issues over which India’s communist parties fell out with Singh’s Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance and withdrew support for his previous government.

But, in the general elections that followed – and results for which were known on May 16 – Singh’s Congress party emerged stronger, while the communists were marginalised and their strength in the 543-seat Lok Sabha (law-making lower house of parliament) reduced from 61 to 24.

Among the first acts of the new government led by Singh, who was sworn in on Friday, is expected to be the signing of a Logistics Support Agreement – vehemently opposed by the communists on the grounds that it would open up India’s ports and facilities to the U.S. military, engaged in Afghanistan and Pakistan with no United Nations mandate.

Yet, experts on Indo-U.S. relations believe that ties between India and the U.S. are on a downward trajectory and cannot – in the short term at least – have the kind of sparkle that was seen during the Bush era.

“It is still not clear who in the Obama administration will be batting for India,” says Christopher Raj, professor of American studies at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, located in the national capital. “In contrast, the Bush administration had many known India supporters such as Ashley Tellis, Condoleezza Rice and Nicholas Burns,” Raj told IPS in an interview.

Raj said there are many factors that have the potential of improving relations between the Obama and Singh administrations – besides the removal of the communists from a position of influence in decision-making and economic relations. “The Democrats have traditionally been friendly to India and during the U.S. elections Barack Obama had the active involvement and support of the large Indian Diaspora there.”

Raj counted the emergence of a younger generation of western-oriented leaders in India – led by Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the dynastic Nehru-Gandhi family – as a positive development. Gandhi, a vocal supporter of the strategic Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, is widely seen as a future prime minister.

In that rosy picture the main stumbling block is seen to be the shift in the Obama administration’s policy towards China and Pakistan, its ‘AfPak’ approach to regional issues, and its expectation that India would sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, Raj said.

An early warning of the shift in U.S. policy came from Robert Blackwill, U.S. ambassador to India from 2001-2003, while on a visit to India in early May. Blackwill said it would require “hard work and skilful diplomacy” to keep the “steady decline [of bilateral relations] on its current plateau.”

Speaking with newspersons in the Indian capital Blackwill said he saw problems arising from the Obama administration’s perceptions on Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Iran, climate change and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

Blackwill said he saw Pakistan as the “most dangerous foreign policy problem” that Washington is facing and that it was one that could lead the administration “to see India largely through the lens of deeply disturbing developments in Pakistan.”

Raj pointed out that the Obama administration was already reacting to China’s growing clout in a way that was far different from that of the Bush administration. “The fact is that Hillary Clinton chose to visit China first after becoming U.S. secretary of state, despite all her protestations of seeking to nurture the India relationship that took a dramatically upward turn during the last year of her husband’s presidency.”

According to Raj, in the ten years since the signing of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership, the relationship has hit a plateau – only relieved partly by the signing in October of the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal.

“Clearly the Obama administration is not as apprehensive about the rise of Chinese power as in the Bush years, or sees for India a role as a balancing force in the region,” said Raj.

The nuclear deal has brought India closer to signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) – which India has traditionally refused to sign as discriminatory – has sent shock waves through the establishment, commented U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller at a press conference.

Indeed there are now apprehensions that the Obama administration is going slow on the actual implementation of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.

India’s new ambassador to the U.S., Meera Shankar, who presented her credentials in the White House last week, has already been seeking speedy negotiations for reprocessing arrangements and the liberalisation of export licensing procedures.

“If we have this agreement and at the same time the procedures continue to be as of old, then indeed we have frustrated one of the objectives of the agreement which is to provide a more facilitative climate for trade in high technologies,” Shankar was quoted as saying at a reception hosted in her honour by the U.S.-India Business Council in Washington.

According to Raj, India’s foreign policy makers are acutely conscious that Washington was not as keen to see India emerge as a “full global power,” but preferred to have an ally that was capable of serving U.S. interests in the region.

“At the same time,” he added, “the Obama administration cannot afford to ignore the fact that India has just been through a successful, violence-free election process and emerged as a stable power in a tough neighbourhood.”

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