Years After Obama Hailed Warming Ties With India

The temperature has fallen

by Gardiner Harris, ‘The New York Times,’ March 31, 2014

NEW DELHI — When President Obama visited India in 2010, he called the warming relationship between it and the United States the “defining partnership of the 21st century.” Decades of disagreements, from Cold War ideological battles to squabbles over the United States’ close relationship with India’s archrival, Pakistan, would take a back seat to the many shared interests of two of the world’s largest and most diverse democracies.

But almost four years later, the United States and India have found themselves on opposite sides of the world’s most important diplomatic issues, from the crisis in Ukraine, in which India came to Russia’s defense, to a long-awaited vote to investigate Sri Lanka’s government for atrocities committed at the end of its civil war (India abstained). Even critical military coordination over the reduction of troops in nearby Afghanistan has suffered.

Nancy J. Powell announced her resignation Monday as the ambassador to India.CreditPool photo by Jim Watson

The arrest infuriated senior members of India’s diplomatic service, many of whom had paid their maids comparably when posted in New York, a plum assignment. For them, the arrest was one of a series of American actions deemed insensitive here.

And on Monday, the United States’ ambassador in New Delhi, Nancy J. Powell, announced her resignation after a 37-year diplomatic career. While Ms. Powell told a gathering at the embassy that her departure was unrelated to growing problems with India, she had become a focus of unhappiness among Indian diplomats and politicians. Indian news media had reported speculation that the United States was considering replacing Ms. Powell in hopes of improving ties.

“There is a growing feeling among Indian policy makers that no matter what concessions or policy adjustments our leadership pushes through at the request of American businesses and the administration, there is always something new to complain about,” said a senior Indian diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “There is a feeling that no one in this administration is a champion of the India-U.S. relationship.”

American diplomats have largely refused to speak publicly about the growing problems, describing the disputes as routine disagreements that other countries would resolve quietly.

“Like any two large and vibrant democracies we have differences reflecting our respective cultures and histories,” said  Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman. “But it’s a sign of the maturing nature of our relationship that we work through our differences and focus on the important work we have to do together.”

Several top American officials said they hoped that a new Indian government, likely to be in place in May, would help reset relations.

But that will not be easy. After Russia invaded Crimea, much of the world criticized Moscow, with even China and Iran obliquely expressing concerns. India, almost alone among major countries, supported Russia, with its national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, citing “legitimate Russian and other interests involved.” In response, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia praised “India’s reserve and objectivity” in a March 18 speech before the Duma. On Thursday, India was among 58 countries that abstained from a United Nations General Assembly vote seen as condemning Russia.

That same day in Geneva, at the United Nations Human Rights Council, India was one of 12 nations to abstain on a resolution, strongly backed by the United States, calling for an independent investigation into war crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s civil war. The abstention came after India had supported two previous resolutions backed by the United States regarding Sri Lanka’s civil war.

“The Indians have not made it easy,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former senior American diplomat and now a professor of diplomacy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It would certainly be of benefit if the Indians were stronger partners in the major challenges to peace like Iran and Russia in recent years.”

In person, Mr. Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India have demonstrated affection for each other, with Mr. Obama calling Mr. Singh his guru and Mr. Singh referring to Mr. Obama as a personal friend.

But Mr. Singh is not expected to remain as prime minister past May, no matter who wins coming elections, and he has all but disappeared from Indian politics in recent weeks. Senior Indian diplomats also complain that Mr. Obama has ignored India.

“We can’t get any attention from this administration, but you can’t solve serious problems without them,” said another senior Indian diplomat who also was not authorized to speak publicly. “They’re busy with Russia, Syria, the Middle East and Iran. But in the current circumstances, it is vital that they also pay attention to the India relationship soon, since the current drift could get much worse.”

Jonah Blank, an analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research institution, said Indian complaints about the Obama administration’s centralized decision-making process had merit.

“In this administration, there is a small group of people in the White House making all the decisions, so issues that are important but not urgent rarely get the attention they deserve,” Mr. Blank said.

And so, in response to Ms. Khobragade’s arrest, officials here have revoked some privileges of American diplomats, removing security barriers in front of the American Embassy and investigating the American Embassy School.

Indian officials also point to a host of other irritants, including a potential downgrade in status by the American trade representative in response to complaints by companies such as the drug maker Pfizer that India does not protect patents; an investigation by the United States International Trade Commission that Indians consider insulting; complaints about the quality of Indian-made pharmaceuticals; and disagreements over taxes, immigration and manufacturing policies that could hurt Indian interests.

To American diplomats, these issues are the natural result of a deepening economic and strategic relationship. To India, the disputes reflect the demands of an overbearing superpower.

Both sides emphasize that the relationship is far better than it was during the Cold War when President Richard M. Nixon sent the Seventh Fleet into the Bay of Bengal to threaten India. As recently as 2000, an episode of “The West Wing” showed a fictional President Josiah Bartlet mediating between a reasonable and urbane Pakistani ambassador and a bellicose and unhinged Indian one — views of the two countries that have flipped almost entirely since then.

“This relationship is one that still needs nurturing,” said K. Shankar Bajpai, a former Indian ambassador to the United States. “And there doesn’t seem to be anyone on either side doing that.”

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