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The ‘Defining Partnership’ needs hard work: Sanjaya Baru

Published Dec 29, 2013, 5:06 pm IST
Updated Mar 19, 2019, 3:22 am IST
Just three years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was feeling very satisfied with the state of India’s relations with the world.

Relaxing at home on a cold winter evening, on Christmas eve in December 2010, just three years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was feeling very satisfied with the state of India’s relations with the world. Only a week earlier, China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had come calling.

A month before that, US President Barrack Obama was in India. His other guests that year included President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Nicholas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain.


“The heads of government of all the P5 countries have visited us this year”, he said to me proudly, the ‘P5’ being the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Earlier that year, India was unanimously elected to the UNSC as a non-permanent member. Dr Singh seemed to think that the visits from the P5 leaders in quick succession after that was an implicit recognition by them that India ought to P6. It was a good way to end the year.

Fast forward to Christmas 2013. The US relationship, widely regarded as India’s most important external relationship and one that was the centerpiece of Dr Singh’s first term in office, is in tatters thanks to an irresponsible junior diplomat, an arrogant US attorney and an aggressive US police system.


He had a good visit to China earlier in the year, but only after he had dug in his heels and told the Chinese to back off from Depsang. While Dr Singh managed to salvage the China relationship with a reasonable business-like visit after an equally business-like visit to Moscow, and played host to the heads of government of Britain and France, the fact is that India’s relations with the P5 at the end of 2013 are nowhere as cordial as they seemed to him that December evening in 2010. Each one has a complaint of one kind or another.

The latest hiccup in the India-US relationship, l’affaire Khobragade, is only the most visible and messy manifestation of a relationship that has gradually deteriorated from the time Barack Obama entered White House and Dr Singh returned to office for his second term.


President Obama began his term with a trust deficit as far as India was concerned. As a senator, he had voted against the amendment to US law that enabled US President George Bush to enter into an agreement with India for cooperation in the field of nuclear and other high technology. When elected President, he irritated India with a series of ill-advised moves. First, he sent his special envoy, the Late Richard Holbrooke, to the Indian sub-continent with a brief to help get the US out of Afghanistan while re-opening the Kashmir issue in a manner aimed at keeping Islamabad happy. Then, he went to Beijing and asked the Chinese to help sort out South Asia. An Obama aide said superciliously to me at the time, “India should get real about China” – implying, ‘stop complaining and learn to live with a rising China.’


Obama’s visit to India was aimed at recovering ground after all this posturing and the consequent reversal of a blossoming partnership during Bush’s tenure. It takes two to tango and two hands to clap. The problem in the India-US relationship in the Obama era was not just on their side. It was on our side, too.

Dr Singh failed to get Parliament’s endorsement for a nuclear liability law that would satisfy nuclear technology suppliers and would conform to international standard practice. While the original draft bill prepared by the department of atomic energy and approved by the PMO would have been acceptable to technology suppliers, amendments sought by opposition political parties and then conceded by the government satisfied none of the nuclear technology suppliers, least of all the US. Russia, France, Japan and other supplier countries were also not happy with the Indian law, but the US was positively livid. It helped open the gates for India for nuclear technology to enter it, and yet India had raised a threshold that no one, and certainly not US companies, could and would cross. In the run up to the vote in the US Congress for what was dubbed the 123 Agreement, US Congressmen would say to their Indian interlocutors, “123 for 126” – implying thereby that their support for the 123 Agreement was in exchange for India buying 126 fighter jet aircraft from US companies. But when A.K. Antony’s defence ministry finished shortlisting suppliers for those jets, US firms did not qualify.


The last straw for the US was a growing feeling that Prime Minister Singh’s new set of advisors in his second term were distancing themselves from the understanding between the two governments arrived at during Dr Singh’s first term about their bilateral strategic partnership.

Between 1998 and 2008, the India-US relationship was built by two successive governments on the foundation of growing mutual trust and respect for each other and a recognition of greater convergence of strategic interests. Growing extremism in the Muslim world, that had contributed to the rise of jihadi terrorism, on the one hand, and rising Chinese power, contributing to Chinese assertiveness, were concerns India shared with the US.
Between 2009 and now, India and the US have drifted apart. The fault lies squarely in both capitals and with both governments. Both Obama and Dr Singh have been so pre-occupied with economic and political problems at home that neither has paid much attention to the bilateral relationship. Worse, both vested the relationship in the hands of aides and diplomats who were either not committed to it, were probably even hostile to it, or were not competent enough to handle the difficult situations.


Looking into 2014, India’s newly appointed Ambassador Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, a bright diplomat and an old US hand, will have to deploy all his brilliance to stabilise the relationship and bring it back to even keel. However, any real revival of the Bush-era bonhomie can only happen after New Delhi gets a new government and Washington DC acquires a new attitude.

(Dr Sanjaya Baru is Director for Geo-economics and Strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies, London; and Honorary Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)