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The India-US bilateral relations are not at a high nor have they hit the nadir. For 20 years, India breathed relatively easy because of the American presence in Kabul. The formation of the Quad is no consolation, and the AUKUS has only made things worse. India has to reassess its strategic ties with the US. The US is robustly pursuing an anti-China strategic game in the Indo-Pacific.
Updated At: Sep 30, 2021 05:44 AM (IST)
Moving on: The United States is busy putting the Afghan debacle behind. Reuters
Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr
Modi-watchers, foreign policy experts and strategy pundits have been weighing in on the success — the adjectives ‘spectacular’ and ‘grand’ have been avoided — of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington and New York. They heaved a deep sigh of relief when the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) alliance was announced by US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on September 15, days before the physical summit of the Quad comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia in Washington on September 24.
Prime Minister Modi attended with his Japanese and Australian counterparts, Yoshihide Suga and Morrison, hosted by Biden as part of his American visit. It was felt that the Quad had been pushed to the second place by the transoceanic Anglo-Saxon military alliance, which is to help Australia get nuclear submarines, clearly targeting China, and much more directly than the Quad.
The Indian commentariat was angry and disappointed with the formation and announcement of the AUKUS, and there was a slow lamentation that the battle against China was being narrowed by excluding India and Japan from the military formation. But after the Quad summit, where nothing concrete had emerged, the Indian observers took a sharp turn and proffered the argument that it was good India was not part of the AUKUS because by joining the military alliance, India would have alienated Russia and its freedom to buy from Moscow would have been reduced.
After a long time in the Indian strategic discourse, Russia has made a comeback, and everyone has begun to say what a bad idea it was for India to be part of a military alliance and how it would compromise India’s strategic autonomy. And the Quad summit became a trophy of success for Modi because the India-US bilateral did not have much meat in it. It was a regular diplomatic non-event. The major event was the Quad summit because it has become evident that the United States and President Biden are quite busy putting the Afghan debacle behind and robustly pursuing an anti-China strategic game in the Indo-Pacific.
The Prime Minister’s meeting with the CEOs of five American majors was played up on the first day in Washington, but there was no radical breakthrough. The foreign investments flowing into India from the United States were following their slow pace, and the Prime Minister’s exhortations did not make any difference. So, from the meeting with the CEOs to the bilateral and the quadrilateral were all subdued events, and the media had a hard time converting it into something interesting and sensational. The final lap, which included the United Nations General Assembly annual jamboree in New York, had more buzz than the Washington part of the journey. Modi’s warning about the threat of terrorism without naming Pakistan and the precarious situation in Afghanistan and referring to the ocean as a common ground without referring to China seemed a subtle onslaught.
The reply of India’s First Secretary Sneha Dubey to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s insidious speech grabbed more attention than the Prime Minister’s speech. Again, the Indian media wanted to celebrate Modi’s UNGA speech as that of a veritable global leader, and that he put Pakistan in its place by not mentioning it and established that India belonged to a different league. The interpretative acrobatics of the media as well as that of the experts made for an interesting brainteaser.
Modi’s trip to the United States was subdued. It lacked the Prime Minister’s raised energy levels which he had displayed on his earlier visits to the country. The welcome by the adoring NRIs in Washington and at New York was not electrifying though the Prime Minister seemed quite pleased. One of the reasons that Modi was quieter this time round in America was the embarrassing fact of the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ rally at Houston where he endorsed former President Donald Trump’s candidacy, though the slogan ‘Ab Ki Baar, Trump Sarkar’, which resounded in the stadium was coined in the 2016 presidential campaign by the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC) and Trump had enthusiastically participated in the clip. The Houston rally on September 24, 2019, was followed by the Ahmedabad rally for Trump on February 24, 2020. It was a diplomatic and political faux pas which must have rankled in the minds of both Modi and Biden, but like good politicians, they let it be. But again like good politicians, neither Modi nor Biden would have forgotten about it. Politicians have elephantine memories, for good or for bad.
Part of the reason for the lack of that extra spark in Modi’s trip to the United States this time had something to do with the Trump faux pas, which everyone in the BJP and the Modi government would vehemently deny and dismiss. But it would be hard to put out of mind two large, loud rallies held in Houston and Ahmedabad, with the Prime Minister playing a stellar role in both. There is no need to linger too long on it and wallow in penitence for the strategic error, and that too an unforced one. And the simple lesson would be that one should not be carried away by one’s own enthusiasm. Many at that time had argued that Republican Trump was friendlier towards India than any Democrat president. He was friendlier but he did not mince words when it came to the issue of taxes on Harley Davidsons in India, or when he demanded the delivery of hydroxychloroquine supplies from India in April 2020.
The India-US bilateral relations are not at a high nor have they hit the nadir. There is a sense of huge disappointment in India after the American exit from Afghanistan because it has weakened India’s position in the region and harmed its interests. For 20 years, India breathed relatively easy because of the American presence in Kabul. The formation of the Quad is no consolation, and the AUKUS has only made things worse. India has to seriously reassess its strategic ties with the US.
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