Interviewee: C. Raja Mohan, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Though U.S.-Indian relations have dipped from the high point they reached during the George W. Bush administration, when the countries signed an important civil nuclear agreement (TIME) , they are still “in reasonably good shape,” says C. Raja Mohan, an expert on U.S.-India relations. President Obama’s November 2010 trip to India bolstered trade and economic ties and helped ease fears that Obama administration policies toward Pakistan and China would run counter to India’s interests, says Mohan. The two countries have differences on issues such as Iran and the Middle East, and some in Washington are frustrated “that the strategic partnership with India has not yielded the expected benefits,” says Mohan. Mohan says Indians watching how the U.S. presidential race shapes up show a growing appreciation of “how political developments within the United States can affect Indian interests.”
How are U.S.-Indian relations these days?
India-U.S. relations are in a reasonably good shape. But the kind of excitement that dominated the bilateral relations in the Bush era is certainly absent. This is due in part to the reluctance of the Obama administration to put a big, transformative issue like the civil nuclear initiative on the bilateral agenda. The focus instead is on deepening bilateral engagement and making steady progress on a broad range of issues. In Delhi, the Manmohan Singh government, which had invested much domestic political capital in reordering the relations with the United States during the Bush years, no longer has the political energy to pursue a bold agenda with Washington.
What are the main issues between our countries?
In some quarters of the United States there is palpable frustration that the strategic partnership with India has not yielded the expected benefits. Whether it is the purchase of the U.S. nuclear reactors or American fighter aircraft, Indian decisions have left some stakeholders in Washington disappointed. The idea that the relationship has been “oversold” has gained some traction in Washington.
On the multilateral front, especially on the Middle East, India follows an independent policy that is not always in alignment with the American approach.
On Iran, India supports the objective of preventing proliferation and fully implements the UN sanctions. But Delhi is reluctant to abandon its engagement with Tehran, which is critical for India’s regional policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan following the feared U.S. retreat from Afghanistan. India is also having some difficulty in coping with the unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran.
The United States is also concerned about the absence of second-generation economic reforms in India and Delhi’s inability to move rapidly on bilateral defense cooperation.
Some of these [issues] are linked to the broader political and administrative paralysis that has gripped Delhi.
From the Indian side, there is recognition that Obama has advanced the bilateral relationship, but Delhi misses the special attention it got from the Bush White House.
[Still,] there is no denying the substantive advances in the bilateral relations in recent years and the current unprecedented breadth and depth of the economic, political and security engagement between the two countries.
Do Indians pay much attention to U.S. presidential campaigns? Do they feel that it matters to India who is in the White House?
The Indian chattering classes have always shown a keen but general interest in the U.S. presidential campaigns. With expanding Indian stakes in the United States, there is growing awareness of how political developments within the United States can affect Indian interests.
President Obama had a highly-publicized vi sit to India (WorldPress) in November 2010, stressing trade between the two largest democracies. Did this visit enhance Obama’s standing in India? How is he regarded now?
Within the Indian elite there has been a great admiration for Obama as a historical figure in the evolution of the United States. But within the strategic establishment there was much concern that Obama might return to the old policies of meddling in Kashmir, going soft on Pakistan, and adopting a China-first strategy in Asia. Obama’s visit helped defuse most of these concerns. And the evolution of Obama’s policies toward Pakistan and China have raised hopes for greater convergence of U.S. and Indian interests in the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, bilateral trade and economic cooperation has grown substantially.
Is Mitt Romney known in India?
Very little. Some of Romney’s foreign policy advisers are familiar in Delhi, and India is bound to invest in getting to know Romney better in the coming months.
There is regular speculation in India’s press about two Indian-American governors, Bobby Jindal [of Louisiana] and Nikki Haley [of South Carolina], as possible GOP vice presidential candidates. Both Jindal and Haley deny any interest.
There is always great interest in the political advances made by the leaders of the Indian-American community in the United States. But the policy establishment in Delhi knows that neither Jindal nor Haley would want to wear the “India badge” on their sleeves. Delhi is acutely aware of the contributions of the Indian-American community to the improvement of bilateral relations with Washington, but it is conscious of the importance of solidifying India’s outreach to the American political mainstream.
Is there any particular bias in India toward the Democratic or Republican parties?
During the Cold War, there was greater empathy in the Indian political class toward the Democratic Party. Arguably, the political bias in Delhi now favors the Republican Party, which is seen as less protectionist than the Democratic Party. India is more comfortable with the Republican geopolitical appreciation of India’s value in the international system.
Delhi remains wary of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment, given its interventionist impulses, especially the itch to mediate on the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan and its focus on human rights issues. Obama, to be sure, has walked away from the initial temptation to focus on Kashmir and has overruled the non-proliferation community in the United States in his effort to implement the Bush deal on integrating India into the global nuclear order.
Delhi is concerned about muscular Republican policies in the Middle East, which complicate India’s domestic politics.
Has the strain in U.S.-Pakistan relations over Afghanistan helped to improve U.S.-India relations?
Yes. When Obama came to power, Delhi was deeply concerned that the Democrats would return to re-hyphenating India with Pakistan, meddle in Kashmir, and appease the Pakistan army in order to achieve U.S. objectives in Afghanistan. Those concerns have eased amidst the downslide in U.S.-Pakistan relations during 2011. Conservatives in Delhi, however, highlight the continuing American need for Pakistan army’s support for U.S. policy in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the sharpening U.S.-Pakistan contradictions have paradoxically coincided with a measure of improvement in India-Pakistan relations in recent months. With its western frontier in trouble, the Pakistani army appears to have cut some slack for the civilian leaders in Islamabad to open up trade with India and expand bilateral interaction. Prime Minister Singh, who has invested much in improving ties with Pakistan, is likely to make something of the emerging opportunity. India has also welcomed the U.S. “silk road strategy” of promoting regional integration between South Asia and Central Asia and stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan as “bridge states” between India and Central Asia.