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Kerry visit signals paradigm shift in US-India relations

July 02, 2013 15:49 IST

John KerryThe push-back by Hillary Clinton was no longer available to keep the proponents of the thesis away that somehow it was India’s problem that Pakistan misbehaves in Afghanistan or misbehaves at all, says K C Singh.

United States Secretary of State John Kerry’s India trip was for the fourth United States-India Strategic Dialogue. Being his first after assuming office, and almost five months into his term, he really was here to pick up the threads from where Hillary Clinton, one of the most India sympathetic of the holders of that position, had left them.

Kerry, perceived as friendly not only to the Pakistanis but perhaps even more so with the Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, arrived needing to dispel that impression. Some US analysts maintain that Kerry, realising that having already been a losing presidential candidate and thus perhaps with no shot at the high office again, wants to use the office to craft his legacy by tackling the long brewing Israel-Palestine dispute, as indeed the out of control crisis in Syria.

He also has to ensure an orderly exit of US and International Security Assistance Force troops from Afghanistan.

The evening before the talks, June 23, Kerry delivered an address to the think tank and journalist community at New Delhi’s Habitat Centre. After humouring the audience with ‘the special energy of this city’ and even attempting a Hindi phrase ek or ek gyaran (one and one add to 11) he got down to defining his priorities. He saw US-India relations tethered to three futures: Planet’s health, economic growth and security.

To take the last first, he placed the security issue in the regional context. To stabilise Afghanistan the New Silk Route needs to be built, that is, Afghanistan connecting South Asia with Central Asia.

He saw a ‘new dynamic’ in Pakistan following Nawaz Sharif’s electoral triumph and his advice was for India and Pakistan to invest in each other. There was not a word about Pakistan’s terror network, the recent dole by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz to the outfit of Hafiz Saeed or the procrastination in bringing the perpetrators of 26/11 attacks in Mumbai to justice.

The only concession he had made was by delinking his swinging through Pakistan after his India visit on his way back to the Gulf.

The real game began to emerge when Strobe Talbot-led Brookings had William Dalrymple write a piece on the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India dynamic, borrowing from his account of the same region in his book The Return of the King, a tale of the rise and death of Shah Shuja in the mid-19th century. The three were being hyphenated again, the earlier attempt by Richard Holbrooke having failed at the start of the Barack Obama presidency.

The push-back by Hillary Clinton was no longer available to keep the proponents of the thesis away that somehow it was India’s problem that Pakistan misbehaves in Afghanistan or misbehaves at all. This is a dangerous line and hopefully was resoundingly countered in the dialogue. The obsequious and fawning behaviour of Indian External Minister Salman Khurshid was hardly reassuring in this regard.

Further confirming the Kerry slant was that the killing of jawans returning from leave in Srinagar June 24, and within minutes of the Kerry-Khurshid joint press conference, elicited neither condemnation nor condolences from Kerry -- neither then nor later. This tone-deafness on Pakistan-sponsored terror was related to an anxiety to keep Islamabad in good humour to facilitate the Afghanistan end-game.

That leads to the Afghanistan and Taliban issue. Kerry came to India from Qatar, where the manner of opening of the Taliban office defied all sense.

How could the Taliban be allowed to begin from where they left off in 2001, as an entity representing a parallel government when there is a duly elected government in Kabul? The sharp reaction in Delhi and an even sharper one in Kabul at least made the Taliban pull their flag down. But the problem is not resolved. Kerry’s assurance was not heard from his mouth but from that of Khurshid -- that Indian concerns would not be ‘overlooked or undermined.’

Kerry also maintained that the red lines laid in the past about Taliban accepting the Afghan constitution, delinking from Al Qaeda and promising not to allow its soil being used to export terror would not be compromised.

These are easy commitments to give, knowing the character of the Afghans who are capable of subterfuge to circumvent them, observing them only in form.

For instance, the epicentre of terrorism is in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan and no longer in Afghanistan. The Taliban can keep their links across the border and deny them to the world. Similarly, the Al Qaeda genie is no longer run from a corporate headquarters in Af-Pak region. It is an idea that has spread globally through the cyber world and getting replanted in diverse regions in North Africa, Syria etc.

Lastly, once Taliban captures control over Southern Afghanistan, the constitution can be slowly strangled. If India could have its constitution’s spirit subverted in the 1975 declaration of Emergency, what chance does that of Afghanistan stand? They will simply declare it as not Sharia compliant.

Kerry’s evangelism on climate change was surprising, as it is US that has traditionally undermined the Kyoto protocol of 1997 that lays down the emission limits for the developed nations. The US signed that protocol but has doggedly refused to ratify it. Kerry linked the Uttarakhand disaster and the US tornados to global warming. Was this Al Gore dressed as Kerry or were we getting the message wrong?

Some research revealed that actually in 2012 the US has become Kyoto compliant as their CO2 emissions were below their level in the base year of 1997, due to shale gas replacing coal for power generation, slowing economy, etc.

Thus we should expect climate change to become another emerging issue of pressure on India and China, the latter adapting more urgently than India.

Last was the unmentionable issue -- China. At the HabitatCenter, Kerry alluded to India’s Look East policy and India and the US joining hands, but quickly adding that not as a threat to anyone else. He called it a ‘strong, smart future.’

Then he added that India was a key part of America’s ‘rebalancing’ in Asia. These were subtle hints that China remained relevant to the US engagement of India, but it was being handled with subtlety in view of the recent ‘shirt-sleeves’ Sino-US summit.

There are eight fact sheets issued, reviewing progress in diverse areas of engagement. These are: Science and technology; culture; economic cooperation; international security; health; space and higher education. Clearly there is much that India can gain from this engagement. The trouble is the pace of this engagement, which the bureaucracies on the two sides are now dragging. That is why a top down direction is important, as was shown by President George W Bush’s intervention to get the civil nuclear deal finalised.

Despite Khurshid’s bending backwards calisthenics, the relationship is today drifting, with the US demanding a bigger share of Indian defense, retail and financial markets, while being insensitive in areas of interest to India like immigration law, begun to be tightened by the US.

Indian applications to join the technology control regimes are also stuck, despite the US chairing the Nuclear Suppliers Group over the last year. Was this in reaction to the tough nuclear liability law passed by India’s Parliament?

This Indian government is really in the sunset phase of its existence, with elections even possible before time. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it is learned, when given the choice to either attend perhaps his last United Nations General Assembly session in September, a time when the US does not accept bilateral visits, or make a trip to US later in October, has opted for the latter. This indicates the priority he attaches to resuscitating a relationship he has invested much in.

He may just find that a second term Obama with a secretary of state on a different agenda may have little appetite for accommodating Indian concerns while waving their demands repeatedly. Perhaps, the prime minister would be better advised to go to UN and deliver his farewell speech -- to an audience that will politely clap.

Ambassador K C Singh is a former Indian diplomat.

K C Singh