In Good Times and Bad

“What’s the point of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington?” That was a question a number of Indians asked before, during and since that visit. There is little doubt that India-US relations are not moving at as fast a pace as before and that bilateral differences, rather than deals, seem to dominate the headlines. One can’t claim that the PM’s visit sped up the momentum of the relationship significantly or entirely changed that narrative. However, one shouldn’t write it off as pointless either.

Many consider the visit worthless because there was no big announcement. The 2005 visit, with its declaration of the India-US nuclear deal set a high benchmark in this regard. But one should not expect that to be the norm. Such visits, especially those involving more mature relationships, often do not involve major announcements. There aren’t, for example, state dinners and big agreements every time leaders of countries close to the US, like Britain, France and Japan, visit Washington — yet commentators in those countries don’t write obituaries for the relationship.

Singh’s visit, like others of its kind, was what diplomats call an “action-forcing event”. In the weeks that led up to it, it helped focus the attention of both countries’ bureaucracies on the relationship, at a time when both governments are preoccupied with other foreign policy and domestic issues.

The trip gave the two leaders and governments a chance to discuss a wide range of bilateral, regional and multilateral issues — a sign of the evolution of India-US relations and India’s growing global footprint. The leaders also got an opportunity to share their concerns and discuss their differences face-to-face. There was movement on issues like defence cooperation and civil nuclear energy. Other kinds of progress will not necessarily be visible — whether stylistic (the bureaucracies further developing habits of cooperation) or substantive (in areas like intelligence sharing).

The visit also showed both countries’ sustained commitment to the relationship — in good times and bad. Despite the political crisis in Washington, the US economy seems better off today than four years ago, and its energy revolution has given its brand a boost. Brand India, on the other hand, seems less attractive today. Singh’s visit came in the aftermath of the announcement of 4.4 per cent economic growth rate in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, and questions about his government’s political mandate. However, when the last two Obama-Singh meetings took place, in 2009 and 2010, the shoe was on the other foot. In 2009, for example, the Indian economy was experiencing about 8 per cent growth, and Singh’s coalition had just returned to power. It was the US that was economically and geopolitically on the back foot.

Further, the visit demonstrated that there are constituencies that continue to be invested in the relationship despite the differences that crop up. Both countries have to agree to such a meeting — if one side is not interested, there are ways to avoid it. In this regard, it is worth keeping in mind that over a hundred world leaders come to the US for the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, and a number of them request bilateral meetings with Obama. The president met with only two leaders in Washington — the Israeli and Indian prime ministers.

This is a reflection of the fact that the relationship today is a far cry from the one the two countries shared during the 1990s. It’s not just a cliché that it is broader and deeper than ever before, it’s a fact — one that is evident from the declarations issued during the visit. To get a sense of how much things have changed, it’s worth comparing the joint statements from different visits. In 2005, the countries’ leaders expressed a “resolve to transform” their relationship. In 2013, the leaders are taking stock of the transformation that has taken place. Back then the statement was full of aspirations and principles, now it is full of specifics.

There’s clearly a lot left to achieve. Ashton Carter, the US deputy secretary of defence, recently said that the two countries are destined to be partners. However, as he noted, the relationship will also need a lot of hard work. Whether in the near term or after the Indian elections, it will need attention and resources, even though both sides have other preoccupations. It will require an understanding that the two partners will differ at times — as all allies and partners do. Legacy issues and the fact that the two countries are democracies will complicate the relationship. Greater friction will be natural because the quantitative and qualitative change in the relationship means that it involves far more issues, interactions and stakeholders than ever before. But these differences don’t have to be deal-breakers.

The relationship will require the participation of not just government officials, but also the private sector and the people of both countries. It will mean learning more about the partner’s strengths and constraints. It will call for constituencies that benefit from the relationship to be as, if not more, vocal than those who have complaints. It will require the two sides to talk transactions. And it will require actions to be taken in India, not for the US but for India’s own benefit.

“In good times and bad” by Ms. Tanvi Madan. Reprinted from The Indian Express with the permission of the Indian Express Limited © 2013. All rights reserved throughout the world.