The Obama administration appears to be coming second best for now in the foreign policy calculus of the new dispensation in New Delhi. Despite Washington making strenuous efforts, including phone calls to the highest levels of the new government in India, it seems for now New Delhi is more intent on straightening out key relationships in its neighborhood before turning its attention to what the BJP leadership once enthusiastically described as a natural ally, a term that was quietly changed to natural partner after ties did not live up to the promise at the turn of the century when Prime Minister Vajpayee was at the helm.
On Thursday (India time), secretary of state John Kerry finally managed to connect with his Indian counterpart, the new external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, after the two struggled to zero in on a mutually convenient time to converse. US officials said secretary Kerry congratulated Swaraj on her appointment, “affirmed the US commitment to our strategic partnership with India, and invited her to visit the United States at the earliest opportunity.”
Secretary Kerry also “conveyed our desire to continue broadening and deepening our bilateral ties, including our robust economic and defense relationship, and working together on global challenges like climate change and countering violent extremism,” state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
New Delhi made no mention of the invitation or any upcoming meeting (beyond saying both are looking forward to meeting each other) although the two sides are scheduled to meet for the annual “strategic dialogue” in summer. Indian officials said the two leaders discussed re-energizing ties and getting back on track towards enhancing trade and economic ties towards the $500 billion target from its current $100 million. Swaraj also briefed Kerry on India’s engagement with the Saarc countries including Pakistan, officials said.
But there was swift action on the China front, giving some substance to the belief that the Modi government will be more inclined to engage Beijing (and Tokyo) closer to the neighborhood because of the former Gujarat chief ministers troubled history with Washington. After the Chinese premier Li Keqiang spoke with Modi for 25 minutes on Thursday and conveyed his government’s desire to establish robust partnership with the new government of India, it was decided that Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi will visit India on June 8 to get things moving.
Modi has visited China several times during his three-term stint as chief minister of Gujarat, and his blacklisting by the US since 2005 has led to discussion in many quarters about how New Delhi will handle the US portfolio despite the vigorous outreach by Washington ever since it became evident that a Modi-led BJP/NDA would win the election and he would be the next Prime Minister.
That moment came earlier this month, and President Obama wasted no time in reaching out to the new Prime Minister, virtually overwriting Kerry and the state department bureaucracy’s disastrous handling of the situation. But the outreach does not seem to have impressed New Delhi very much given the laundry list of issues that have bedeviled ties in recent months, including the ugly spat over the US treatment of the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade.
The fact that India’s foreign ministry will be run principally by women – EAM Sushma Swaraj and foreign secretary Sujatha Singh, under whose watch the Khobragade affair exploded – is not something that has gone unnoticed in Washington. Sushma Swaraj is the first female External Affairs Minister to hold independent charge after Indira Gandhi held the post concurrently when she was Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, Modi partisans in the US feel the Prime Minister will take his time responding to American overtures given the serial slights the US state department dished out over the past several months and even years.
“The US state department, and my own institution, the University of Pennsylvania, incredibly erred and miscalculated in denying a visa to and disinviting Narendra Modi. There were diplomatic miscalculations, ideological motives, or both, behind these spectacular missteps that can only queer the pitch for future interactions with the prime minister of the largest democracy in the world,” said Aseem Shukla, a physician and board member of the Hindu American Foundation, referring also to the fiasco where the Wharton Business School bailed out on Modi.
“There are consequences to these decisions,” Shukla added. “One can only hope that Prime Minister Modi is capable of a bit more diplomacy than was shown to him.” (TOI)