Monday, November 23, 2009

Rendezvous of Democracies: Obama-Singh Summit

Indo-US relations have taken a peculiar route throughout history to arrive at this point. Both nations with great cultural diversity and strong democratic traditions should have been the most natural of allies and friends. But that didn't quite materialized. Instead the ideological fault lines of the Cold War came to define their relationship.

Sure the two nations have moved quite a bit from the days of the Soviet Union but mistrust, hyper-sensitivity to protocol and on India’s part a feeling that the United States still does not value India as a friend continues to linger in the psyche and headlines. The latest instance of Indian officials reading way more than that was said (sure the Indo-Pak public reference during the President’s recent China visit could have been avoided) is yet another example that the post-Bush era has brought an all-too-well known discomfort for Indian officialdom. The administration too has been a little careless in understanding this sensitivity. For the sake of numerous global and regional challenges that are calling out for joint leadership the hope is that both bureaucracies can sort things out so that crucial progress can be made so that the aspirations of their common citizens not special interests on both sides can be responded to.


On Climate Change, the clock has almost run out. With little chance of the Boxer-Kerry Bill that sets emissions targets for the US getting through before the Copenhagen climate summit India is not going to feel any additional pressure to oblige with the same – binding targets. But Copenhagen should not be made the totality of the global climate effort. Thus, this visit of India’s Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh’s holds increased importance in formulating actionable policies that clearly invest joint resources in assisting new renewable technologies and the business models needed to sustain them. Best practices on the regulatory side too should be a target of such policies. With the US Smart Grid program soon to reach a launch date it is highly desirable that details be exchanged with India so that similar efficiencies could be achieved in India as well – another leader in green house gas emissions.


India’s familiarity with the cultural and political landscape of Afghanistan should be leveraged in helping formulate US policy towards Afghanistan. Not to mention the security related convergence for both nations. If the United States can delink its AfPak policy from India (let Pakistan focus on Afghanistan and not Kashmir) and find more effective ways of bringing India and Pakistan together then that would create a conducive environment for progress for peace. It’s not Indian hegemonic visions for South Asia that get hurt when the US brings up Kashmir it is a frustration about the US misinterpreting the issues in Kashmir and those between India and Pakistan. American leadership can play a constructive role but it will have to be asked for by all parties. This is in no way challenging the sentiments of the Obama administration to pursue peace but a mere suggestion on the strategy to achieve it.

If South Asian peace is indeed a goal then the President must impress upon his message of complete nuclear disarmament to the next level by pursuing a serious policy initiative with India on this. Many analysts believe that the Nuclear Deal was a step back on this front. It is time re-address this issue. Of course, India’s nuclear arsenal is significantly smaller than that of the United States but American leadership could make reciprocating steps possible. It is time to put these thoughts into commitments and then action. Nations that produced Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. must do this.


Fundamentally, two democracies must engage in such a way that empowers their people. More generally, beyond trade, educational, cultural and scientific collaboration aimed at larger sections of both societies needs to be accelerated. So far we’ve got the big guys on both sides talking and getting business done. Now is the time for a major expansion in education not just at the higher education level but also at the primary and secondary levels. Similarly, health care at the primary level and small business development aimed at employment generation should be a focus area. With the climate change crisis staring at us making renewable technology commerce a key part of bilateral engagement would be a big step in the right direction.

The great intellectual thread that ties the two nations started from Thoreau. It helped Gandhi weave an unprecedented movement for human freedom and dignity that inspired a great chapter of the American Revolution under Martin Luther King. The hope is once the statecraft and gallantry subside the millions of lives President Obama and Prime Minister Singh can impact could be more just a little more hopeful.


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