Retired Indian diplomat Neelam Deo believes that India, in terms of bureaucratic capacity, 'does not match the capacity of the United States'.
Speaking at the Atlantic Council on Indo-US relations at a time when there is an emerging consensus in Washington that apathy on both sides could slow down the evolution of the US-India strategic partnership, Deo said, “It has not always responded with alacrity or adequately to many of the initiatives that have been made from here.”
She predicted that none of the expected big agreements between Washington and New Delhi whether it be in defence or the implementation of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, would be “signed in the next one year,” as the government would be held hostage to the upcoming election.
Deo served in the Indian embassy in Washington as minister, political, and was the liaison with the US Congress on strategic issues, and was later an ambassador to Denmark and several West African countries, and her most recently diplomatic incarnation before retirement was as Consul General in New York.
She is now the director of Gateway House, a new foreign policy-oriented think-tank in Mumbai.
Mincing no words, she said that she could “sympathize with some of the frustrations,” of the administration and business, and reiterating the inadequate response of the Indian bureaucracy, spoke of how in New Delhi “the process seems to be very slow and sometimes unnecessarily so.”
“That’s one of the potential drawbacks,” Deo said, “and the other of course, is whether the United States will overcome -- as it often happens -- having to focus on crises on the immediate, rather than on the long term. And, there really is a broad sense that where there is much to be gained from the Indo-US relationship, it’s not a crisis, it’s not a problem, we are not rubbing up against each other in many areas.”
She said, the relationship is largely about “an opportunity to be realised, rather than a crisis to be dealt with, and could therefore receive inadequate attention at the highest levels.”
Deo, referring to the number of recommendations floating around in think-tank circles both in the US and India to inject some oomph into the relationship, said one that could really once again set it on fire would be “a second visit by President Obama to India. It would be unprecedented.”
“We have never had a sitting (US) president visit India twice in his term, and certainly, that would be electrifying in India,” she said.
Deo recalled that “the last visit made by President Clinton, or President Bush or President Obama himself, were very much welcomed in India and certainly are the occasions when things are pulled together and things get an impetus.”
“So, a second visit would be one important way to get the whole gamut of relations moving forward.”
Deo said, another recommendation, where there was consensus in all circles was “the appointment of a point person (in the US State Department or the National Security Council in the White House) for dealing with India parallel perhaps or at whatever equation with the appointment of (Deputy Defence Secretary) Ashton Carter to take the defence relationship forward,” because taking the defence relationship forward was a big deal to the US and would be a “very important pillar in the coming years.”
But again, she pointed out to the differences in enthusiasm where the US and India are concerned and implied the lukewarm statements and rebuttals by Indian officials don’t seem to inject any excitement to such a relationship.
Deo said, “Recently, when Obama met Manmohan Singh, he said, ‘India is a big part of my plans.”
Outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said, “India was a linchpin of US strategy in Asia. You have had the outgoing Secretary of State (Hillary Clinton) saying that the US has made a ‘strategic bet on India,’ and you have had the National Security Adviser (Tom Donilon) say that the US has undertaken a ‘full embrace of India’s rise.’”
In response, she pointed out, “India leaders have been much more reticent, and the only occasion when an Indian leader said something like that was with former President Bush, when our Prime Minister said, ‘India loves you’ and it was met with a lot of jokes and laughter in India.”
Deo said, in response to Panetta’s remarks at a forum in Singapore that India was a “linchpin” to the US’s pivot to Asia, India’s Defense Minister A K Antony had not only been reticent, but had thrown cold water on Panetta’s contention, saying that “relationships will grow at a pace which everybody is comfortable with,” -- that had been panned by commentators in the US.
According to her, the future convergence of the US-India strategic partnership in the second Obama administration would be dependent in the foreign policy realm on the evolving situations vis-à-vis Afghanistan and Iran.
Deo said, “The withdrawal from Afghanistan, brings us back to what has been issues in Indo-US relations for a very long time, and that is the role of Pakistan. What will happen in Afghanistan itself, once the United States withdraws the bulk of its forces or as one of the official statements said, they are even looking at a zero option.”
She noted that the recent killing of Indian soldiers on the Line of Control in Kashmir was reminiscent of the last time the US forces withdrew from Afghanistan when “there was a sort of push by Pakistan for militants and jihadists to be introduced into India. So, that’s building up into a concern.”
Deo said Iran could also crop up to becoming a contentious issue because while “India conforms fully to UN sanctions against Iran, we are not happy about being forced to conform to unilateral sanctions by the United States and the European Union.”
“And, this is particularly significant because since it is no longer possible to route money through any banking channels to pay Iran for the oil that we import.”
Deo said this had created much angst among commodity exporters “who are many of BRICS (countries) who need to consider an alternate financial architecture, when you are being coerced to conform to sanctions, which are not UN sanctions, which are unilateral sanctions.”