‘US will not let the [Modi] visa issue hijack a relationship.’
By Deepak Chitnis
WASHINGTON, DC: With the Indian elections coming to a close this week, and the announcement of victors and losers coming on May 16, the relationship between the US and India has found itself at yet another pivotal junction. As the two democracies continue to re-build their ties after a strenuous 2013, India’s Lok Sabha elections may ultimately have the final word on where the relationship goes in the immediate future.
Over the coming weeks, The American Bazaar will feature a series of interviews with renowned think tankers and political pundits, all of whom are well-versed on both India and America, in order to get their perspective on how India’s elections will ultimately influence the country’s ties with the US.
The series’ inaugural Q&A is with Michael Kugelman, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, DC. Kugelman is the Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia in the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, where is areas of expertise include: Energy Security, Environmental Security, International Development, Population, International Security, U.S. Foreign Policy, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
Kugelman holds a B.A. in International Studies from American University’s School of International Studies. He earned his M.A. in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, in Massachusetts. He has written a number of papers and essays, which have been published by the likes of CNN, The New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and Politico, among others.
Excerpts from the interview:
Will the make-up of the ruling coalition significantly affect India’s foreign policy with regards to the US, and if so, how?
Regardless of the make-up of the new ruling coalition, relations with the US will not be affected very significantly, if at all. This is because, despite a series of problems in recent months, at root the US and India have a very stable relationship. These stable ties can be attributed to three factors: First, strategic convergences (both countries, for example, are concerned about China’s rising influence in Asia and hold similar views about terrorism in South Asia). Second, strong economic relations. And third, a large and influential US-based diaspora that lobbies on behalf of a strong US relationship with India.
This is not to say a stable relationship is a deep one–in fact, the US-India relationship is far from deep, and is actually quite dysfunctional. But the foundation under-girding the relationship is strong and stable, ensuring that any new ruling coalition in Delhi will want to keep relations with Washington cordial.
If Modi becomes the new PM, as is widely expected, what will the immediate effects of that be on Indo-US ties?
The most immediate impact will be on the visa controversy: Modi has previously been denied a visa to visit the US, so there will be much attention–from policymakers to the media in both countries–as to how this is resolved. In truth, if Modi becomes PM, there will be no issue. There’s no way that Washington would jeopardize a relationship as significant as the one with India by refusing to allow a visit by India’s prime minister. It’s one thing to deny a visa to the chief minister of an Indian state just a few years after the infamous 2002 riots; it would be quite another to deny a visa to Indian’s prime minister more than a decade after these events, and after an Indian Supreme Court decision cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Modi’s past has been mostly ignored in recent weeks by the US – do you see it cropping up again in the future, and further tainting diplomatic ties?
The US, like India, is a vibrant democracy, and naturally there will be a variety of voices heard on the issue of Modi’s past. So we can assume that human rights groups, religious freedom advocates, and similar interests will continue to focus on Modi’s past–as they have a right to do.
But in all likelihood, these voices will in time be drowned out by those calling for engagement, and for moving beyond what happened in the past. Even now, Washington appears to be taking this path. The decision to have former US ambassador Nancy Powell meet with Modi was a critical moment–it has essentially established a new path and signaled U.S. willingness to work with Modi.
Tellingly, in recent months there has been practically no noise at all from the U.S. government about Modi’s past–the sole exception is the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. Not a peep has been heard from the likes of the State Department or the White House. And such silence is highly significant. Clearly, the US will not let the visa issue hijack a relationship that, despite some years of drift, remains a critical one for Washington.
Indo-US relations are at their lowest point in many years – what does each country have to do to really get things going in the right direction, now that India is essentially under new management?
They need to reemphasize the strengths of the relationship–shared values, shared interests, strong commercial and cultural ties, and a significant US-based diaspora. And they need to redouble engagement within these realms. It is unlikely to expect any sort of game-changer for the relationship anytime soon–in a vein similar to the civil nuclear accord or President Obama’s endorsement of a future permanent India seat in the UN Security Council.
Instead, the two sides simply need to plow ahead and assure each other that they value the relationship. There have been many bruised egos and ruffled diplomatic feathers in recent months, and a key first step is simply to heal these wounds.
What should be the first priority for India and the US? In other words, what issue needs to be addressed first for both countries to move towards a better relationship?
Each side needs to lower its expectations. This may sound strange for a relationship that is stable and enjoys many shared interests. But the truth is that this partnership has been overstated and oversold in recent years–particularly since the inking of the civil nuclear accord several years back. That agreement–which the US saw as proof of a new “strategic partnership” and which PM Singh literally risked his political survival to push through–made it easy to forget that there are all types of tension points in the relationship. These range from India’s unhappiness with Washington’s constant courtship of Pakistan to legislation in each country that the other sees as protectionist and detrimental to relations. And then there’s the residual baggage from a relationship that was in utterly dreadful shape for several decades until the early 1990s.
This is why there shouldn’t have been so much surprise when the Devyani Khobragade incident blew up; the US-India relationship may be strong, but it is nowhere near air-tight, and is in fact still quite fragile. It’s important that both sides – and the US and India publics – understand the delicateness of the bilateral relationship. Policies will be more effective and reasonable if they are informed by a more accurate reading of where things stand.