Indian politics and the U.S.-India strategic relationship (Part 2)


Indian politics and the U.S.-India strategic relationship (Part 2)

This past month has been an eventful one in Indian politics. The decisive victory of the populist Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi Assembly elections against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has led some Indian observers to question the patience of the Indian electorate with the pace of economic and anticorruption reforms. Meanwhile, in Indian-controlled Kashmir, an unlikely coalition government has emerged between the majority-Muslim People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the Hindu-nationalist BJP. Some are hopeful that this partnership may provide a foundation for talks on the status of the disputed territory, but several early hiccups—including the release of Kashmiri separatist Masarat Alam by PDP leaders (reportedly without the BJP’s consent)—may be signs of trouble.

(Part 1)

How would you characterize the emphasis the Obama administration has placed on its relationship with India? 

It is crystal clear from President Obama’s actions that the U.S.-India relationship is a highly unique and very special one. He is deeply and personally committed to this partnership and has executed policies on several levels to advance the strategic nature of the relationship. Whereas ten years ago, for instance, we would see a hyphen in the India-Pakistan relationship, today there is no limit to the depth of bilateral relations with India. This extends to cooperation on sensitive intelligence issues and a historic new counterterrorism agreement, as well as the important Defense Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI). The United States is now India’s number-one partner in defense acquisitions and military exercises, which, along with economic and education initiatives, is a reflection of India’s status as the linchpin of the U.S. rebalance to Asia. In short, the relationship between these two great democracies has been fundamentally transformed since the days of the Cold War.

When I met with President Obama in the White House in 2009 and talked about the U.S. relationship with India, the president was very specific about wanting to spend his personal time developing this relationship. Consequently, he wanted to find ways for the United States to work with India not only bilaterally but also regionally and globally. This is why he endorsed Indian membership in the UN Security Council and encouraged greater Indian investment in Afghanistan, resulting in a $2.4 billion pledge from India to support energy, infrastructure, and economic projects within that country.

The efforts between the United States and India to promote democracy are vital in the region. Sri Lanka, for example, is emerging from a long and painful civil war and is looking to reach out more to India and the United States to assist with its economic development. Bhutan is also in the early stages of trying to firmly establish institutions of democracy within its borders. Elements in Nepal are struggling to push for a more open system. Myanmar is slowly opening up to the international community. Bangladesh is looking for economic assistance and development investment. One of the important questions the Obama administration has examined is how India and the United States can work together to promote economic growth and democracy in the entire region. China will carefully monitor this relationship over the ensuing years.

What are some of the ways U.S. policymakers can help further the U.S.-India relationship?

From the American side, a first step toward encouraging positive developments would be an agreement on the bilateral investment treaty. This would go a long way toward establishing a legal framework for transparency, reliability, and trust in the trade relationship. Additional steps would include continuing to work day-by-day on the DTTI and seeking appropriate ways to sell and transfer more security equipment to India, thus helping the country increase its defense capabilities and protect its interests in the region. We should identify avenues to work on interoperability and logistical cooperation as keys to improving our antipiracy efforts and enhancing counterterrorism cooperation. Specifically, if the United States can achieve an agreement with India on cybersecurity issues, that would set a very significant precedent for other countries in the world to emulate this type of cooperation and partnership. A cornerstone of the U.S-India relationship is our mutual dedication to human rights, the improvement of access to education, and the elevation of the poor out of poverty. Progress and programs on these fronts should continue to be the highest priority. Finally, achieving some tangible progress on the civilian nuclear agreement resulting in GE and Westinghouse actually conducting business in India would be a critical breakthrough.

What can we expect to be the most important developments in Indian politics over the next year?

We will definitely see Prime Minister Modi focus on following through with his pledge to get economic growth to 7%–8%. This is an issue he relentlessly campaigned on, and it will likely consume much of his time. We’ll also see him look to promote a new form of federalism and develop a relationship with the Indian states where he can incentivize them to work with the central government to implement his big initiatives. He will potentially utilize and leverage his new budget to accomplish this. Prime Minister Modi can also be expected to put a great deal of emphasis on securing and increasing his power in the legislature. It will be important to see how he plans to continue to improve his prospects of getting legislation through both upper and lower houses of parliament. Considerable focus will be on the Rajya Sabha (upper house), where the BJP does not have a majority. His progress on this front will be particularly important for getting legislation passed on land acquisition, infrastructure investment, labor reform, and economic growth issues.

It will be interesting to see if Prime Minister Modi reaches a point where he has consolidated enough power to push more boldly for larger parts of his economic agenda, or perhaps even for action on climate change, the environment, or big education issues. As always, we must continue to carefully monitor the evolving opinions of the Indian electorate. We will have to watch if there is a point in the next two or three years when the electorate begins to lose patience if Prime Minister Modi is unable to show concrete progress on his campaign promises. Given the challenges in foreign policy and the volatility in the region, it will be crucial to watch precisely how the Modi foreign policy team engages and executes its vision and reacts to its first crisis. 

Finally, it will be fascinating to see how the Congress Party will rethink, reform, and rebuild itself in the years ahead. What leaders and policies will emerge? Any democracy works best when there is a sharp and competitive opposition party to propose and oppose. It will be crucial to see how the leadership of the Congress Party develops new ideas and projects, and whether it undergoes significant changes. Regional parties have always been a factor in Indian politics, so assessing their influence and progress will also be important. Will the BJP, Congress, or regional parties be able to develop a pro-growth and pro-environment policy for accelerated job creation and cleaner air? Twenty years ago, few would have predicted Barack Obama and Narendra Modi leading their respective countries. One thing is certain—anything can happen in democracies. 

(Produced by The National Bureau of Asian Research for the Senate India Caucus)

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