By Rajeev Srinivasan
I must admit I was startled by the news that US President Barack Obama has accepted the invitation to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day 2015. This is quite out of character for both Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I had imagined that the two had grit their teeth and held their metaphorical noses and shook hands with each other when the PM went to the US: after all, it’s not every day that a person who had been declared persona non grata for years is welcomed into the US White House.
And now comes this bombshell. Personally I am of the opinion that the Republic Day festivities should be cancelled, as they are a waste of time and money. Most of the time, the State Guests have been relatively unknown leaders, except for Japan’s Shinzo Abe and a Saudi ruler. Obama coming is big news: I dread the likely wall-to-wall coverage in the Indian media about important matters such as Michelle Obama’s clothes and handbags.
But there are substantive concerns about the proposed Obama visit. I can see several possibilities as to why the visit is happening now, and some are positive, others negative.
First, the optimistic scenarios. One, that after Modi’s powerfully projected image during his visit to the US, the administration has realized that it had been led down the garden path by a sinister cabal of leftists and Cold Warriors in the State Department, as well as the loud, leftist media both in India and the US.
Two, that there is genuine interest in containing China, with Modi’s outreach to Japan, Vietnam and Australia suiting American geostrategic interests, including the proposed quadrilateral of Asia-Pacific powers plus America ensuring safe passage in the Indian Ocean Rim.
Three, that India has finally figured out the fine art of playing off America and China against each other, since both would like to have India on their side.
On the other hand, there are negative scenarios. Four–Nothing has changed in the usual American habit of whispering sweet nothings in India’s ear, while its real interests and everything of substance remains mired in Cold War memes, and in extricating itself from its tar-baby involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Five, that the US leaned on India, and that India caved in and gave up something substantial, much as fast-talking American snake-oil salesmen put on a full-court press to convince India to give up its minimal nuclear deterrent (pathetic as it is) in return for promises in nuclear power, which in the event amounted to nothing.
Let us take up the scenarios one by one. First, it is by now evident that vested interests in the State Department, and Democratic interests in general, continue to view matters through the prisms of Atlanticism and Cold Warriordom. This perspective has been articulated by many grey eminences, most notably Zbigniew Brzezinski, but also by current Secretary of State John Kerry, and affords India little importance.
It was also demonstrated through the pariah treatment meted out to Modi over the past decade, by the then-Ambassador, allegedly on direction from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her confidantes, among whom are people who would prima facie be anti-India. Furthermore, John Kerry has been noticeably anti-India for years.
Worryingly, there is the recent news that Robin Raphel, known for years as a vicious and unrelenting critic of India, has been accused by the FBI of, for all practical purposes, being an unregistered lobbyist for Pakistan. She was the one who coined the lovely phrase that Pakistan was a “model, modern, moderate, Muslim state”, which, to put it mildly, boggles the mind.
Raphel had also been, up until the charges were raised, in charge of some $7.5 billion in American aid to the Pak-Afghan area, as the manager of funds set aside under a provision known as the Kerry-Lugar Bill. (Yes, the same Kerry). Thus, it is not unreasonable to wonder if Raphel reflects the Obama administration’s views (and let us remember undeclared lobbyist for Pakistan, Ghulam Nabi Fai, now languishing in an American jail if I am not mistaken).
Thus, it is hard to believe that Obama and company went through a sudden change of heart in relation to India in general, or Narendra Modi in particular. But stranger things have happened (as an example Nixon in China), and maybe the Raphel housecleaning is sending a message.
Then scenario two: that the US is so worried about a rising China that containing it has become an imperative for the US, and it must find friends in the region. Given that the US is stretched militarily, it has no stomach for any adventures in Asia (for instance, if it comes to blows between China and Japan over the Senkakus, America may not intervene for the sake of its ally).
But given that China is rampaging in the South China Sea (the latest is that they may be building a runway at Fiery Cross shoal in the disputed Spratly Islands) and in the East China Sea (declaring an air defense zone) the US needs friends. Australia, Japan, India and Vietnam perhaps, as in the proposed pentagon of security alliances, that might leave the international waters free of a pax Sinica.
In the Indian Ocean, India has strategic potential. Not only is it right smack in the middle of the sea-lanes, but because of its Andaman-Nicobar chain, it is also not far from Indonesia and the Straits of Malacca, the major choke-point. The American base at Diego Garcia may not last much longer, as the native Chagossians who were removed from the islands are asserting their claims. The Americans may look at Trincomalee or an island in the Maldives to retain their foothold in the area. Or, they may find it much more convenient if India were to collaborate.
What would America be willing to fork over India for naval facilities in some major port? On the other hand, what on earth would make India give that to them? It seems like a tall order, come what may. Maybe there’s a mutually beneficial deal somewhere out there.
Scenario three would be quite remarkable: India has in the past been a master at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, never realizing its true strengths and value to potential partners. Instead, it has been busy being a shrill scold, lecturing and moralizing, and irritating all and sundry: the epitome of the country with a big chip on its shoulders.
If now Narendra Modi is able to fashion a foreign policy based on realpolitik, giving up the unrealistic and antediluvian vanity of non-alignment and indeed of alignment per se, that would be great. The right approach to take would be the relentless push towards at G3 (US, China, India), rather than aligning with either America or China in a G2. So far Modi has done the right thing: “with malice towards none” he has engaged both the Americans and Chinese, while keeping India’s permanent interests in mind.
Now for the negative scenarios: Four. India has been notorious for being taken in by flattery while its legitimate interests were trampled on by others. For instance, Obama gave Manmohan Singh the “first State dinner” of his presidency, which made the Indian media go crazy with excitement. But it meant absolutely nothing – Obama clearly leaned towards China, to the extent of asking it to essentially own ‘South Asia’.
Is another such offer in the offing? What might that be? Is the “Obama comes to Republic Day” another meaningless exercise, what might be called ‘syntactic sugar’? Looks good on paper, but is illegal, immoral, or fattening? Given Modi’s businesslike attitude, one would hope that’s not the case, but there’s a whole lot of people in the bureaucracy who haven’t heard The Who’s anthem “Won’t get fooled again”.
And finally, scenario five, the nightmare. What did India have to give up in order for this visit to happen? Is it something on global warming (note the US-China pact on this, announced with much fanfare two weeks ago)? Is it something to do with Siachen as a gift to Pakistan (Manmohan Singh had practically agreed to pull out of there)? Is it something else that seriously affects Indian interests?
One pointer is the sudden departure of Chuck Hagel as US Defense Secretary, as the US begins to re-engage with boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is mysterious why Hagel quit (or was pushed out) at the very moment Obama did a U-turn, in contrast to his earlier declared intent to exit these wars by 2014. And these are unwinnable wars, for all practical purposes.
My fear is that the price for the Obama visit is that India has been bullied into participating in the Afghan campaign. The word ‘cannon fodder’ leaps to mind, much as in the British-Afghan wars where thousands of Indians ended up losing their lives for the benefit of Britain, and in the end fruitlessly, as the Afghans won, anyway. The only outside power that has recently defeated Afghans was Ranjit Singh, but we have no time for such adventures now.
It is true that Indian involvement in Afghanistan will help keep the Pakistanis at bay, but the blood and treasure we have to spend is immense. On balance, I think it’s a bad idea, but that might well be the pound of flesh the Americans want.
Thus, while the symbolism of the POTUS visit is high, I must ask, like the little old lady did some years ago: “Hey, where’s the beef?” And I am not sure I will like the answer.