US-India relations need adult supervision

Need elder statesmen to remind us that there is nowhere else to go.

By Nish Acharya

Nish AcharyaBOSTON: More than anything, the recent diplomatic scuffle between the United States and India over an arrested consular employee highlights the lack of elder statesmen and stateswomen in either country with the influence, desire and ability to calm the situation before it got out of hand.

As someone who has worked for two American Presidents and managed one of the largest charitable foundations in India, I believe that the impact of recent events will indeed have a long and dramatic impact on US-India relations.

Regardless of what officials will tell you, this episode simply brought long-simmering tensions and frustrations to the surface.  These tensions reflect a frustration among Americans about the unwillingness of the Indians to embrace the United States as friend, ally and partner; and a frustration among Indians about a diminished personal interest and strategic focus on India by the Obama Administration.

Unfortunately, we are at a critical time in the maturation of the US-India relationship when we don’t have elder statesmen in either government with deep and binding relationships with the other country.

There are few senior Americans, outside of Bill Clinton, Indra Nooyi or Jack Welch, that have a deep knowledge of India and command the respect of Indians. Similarly, there are few Indians, except perhaps Narayana Murthy or Ratan Tata, who understand the United States and have a name brand here.  (Bollywood doesn’t count).

Nothing can change this other than time – the media and policy makers of both nations are comprised of professionals who came of age during the Cold War, and have an inherent mistrust of each other. The next generation, which moves freely between both countries in business and government, is only now coming to power and doesn’t have the status yet to calm the waters.

The toxic set of events over the last few weeks reflect a confluence of these factors – the nature of the incident, the lack of elder statesmen and stateswomen, bilateral policy shift, and the generational transition we are in the middle of.

From all accounts, the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, an employee of the Indian consulate in New York, was handled appropriately and correctly by local law enforcement. We don’t yet know whether it could have been communicated better — internally and externally, but the process was correct.

The reaction of the Indian government and the Indian media has been knee-jerk, indignant and not very becoming of a nation that views itself as a global power. Leading Indians have completely failed to understand the American legal system or what factors make Americans so uneasy about household servants and their treatment. It is a complicated issue related to income inequality, immigration and the challenges of the US economy right now.  But I have yet to see a piece in the Indian media that explains it.

Conversely, American officials have acted in a similarly clumsy manner as it relates to the visa for Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.  This is rightfully upsetting to Indian citizens and policy makers. Regardless of whether one supports Mr. Modi or not, the visa denial was driven by a small group of special interests in the United States that were able to gain traction with certain advisory boards and senior political appointees.   In this case, American policy makers and media have shown little willingness to understand the visa issue in context or with regards to the Indian legal process.

Neither of these situations should be part of the bilateral conversation at this time, but they seem to dominate. Instead, we need serious leaders on both sides asking how we can truly seal the potential bond between the two countries with a focus on big, strategic collaboration. Does India really want its key partner in the 21st century to be anyone else?  Does India want to partner with a politically challenged European Union?  Or Iran?  Does anyone think China will be India’s partner?

No, it will be the United States – that’s the big picture.  The same applies for the United States.  India remains one of the few countries in the world that shares the same values as the United States, including democracy and capitalism, while also dealing with large geography and enormous diversity.

We need elder statesmen and women to remind us that there is nowhere else to go.  These relationships must work.  And they cannot be side tracked by personal agendas, bureaucratic snafu’s or perceived slights.  Too much depends on it. (Global India Newswire)

(Nish Acharya is principal at Equal Innovation, LLC. He previously worked with the Obama and Clinton administrations.)

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