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Waiting for Obama

Wednesday 5 November 2008, by Siddharth Varadarajan

Why is it that when the American people and pretty much the entire world want Barack Obama to be elected President of the United States, India’s strategic and business elites seem to be rooting for John McCain? As the Republican contender’s star has faded, the cries of support from Delhi have become less muted but the subliminal desire of the average decision-maker in Delhi is still for the Senator from Arizona. What makes the contrast all the more glaring is t he obvious civilisational affinity India ought to have with the ethos, tenor and symbolism of Senator Obama’s campaign and candidacy. Besides, the Bush presidency has so littered our wider neighbourhood with new conflicts and so exacerbated old ones that it is hard to see what possible interest India could have in the ‘four more years of the same’ that Senator McCain stands for.

To the extent to which it was a Republican administration that took the initiative to open the doors for international nuclear commerce with India, the elite say they are justified in wishing Mr. McCain well. Their argument goes something like this. President Bush might have launched a disastrous war in Iraq and may be responsible for unleashing a financial tsunami across the world through his promotion of unregulated capitalism but at least he was “good for India.” And of the two presidential contenders, they say, Mr. McCain is most likely to continue pursuing a strategic partnership with India, even if his other foreign policy moves generate tension between the U.S. and major powers like Russia and China.

In contrast, Mr. Obama is seen as less likely to treat India as a special partner. His lukewarm support for the civil nuclear initiative, his successful attempt in the Senate to limit the amount of nuclear fuel India can receive under the Hyde Act, his advocacy of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and his critical remarks on outsourcing are all cited by strategic analysts as evidence that an Obama presidency might lead to a return to the equivocation of the Clinton era. No serious analyst in India seriously expects a return to Washington’s “hyphenated” South Asian policy of political equidistance between New Delhi and Islamabad. But the fear is that a Democratic administration might try and revive the old Clinton policy of cozying up to China as a means of putting pressure on India.

What this simplistic narrative ignores is the broad bipartisan backing that President Bush’s opening up to India enjoys. Perhaps no vector of foreign policy other than Israel so unites the disparate ideological, political, institutional and corporate agendas of America than the U.S. drive to build a strategic partnership with India centred around fully opening up the Indian economy and establishing close military-to-military relations. No doubt the neoconservatism of Mr. Bush and his advisers gave this agenda a certain cutting edge but the broad contours of the U.S.-India relationship as they emerged in the past eight years were in some sense already determined by the events of the 1990s, from the end of the Cold War to the end of the ‘unipolar moment’ and the 1998 Pokhran-II tests. And given American compulsions and the continuing state of flux in international politics, there is every reason to expect continuity in U.S. policy towards India regardless of who gets elected to the White House next month.

From the Indian point of view, predictability of this kind is always better than uncertainty. But the key question is for India to know what it wants. Indeed, one of the biggest foreign policy challenges facing the country over the next decade will be handling the mismatch between what Washington and Delhi expect from their relationship. Having cleared the way for India to access nuclear supplies globally, the U.S. will look for payoffs across a range of areas. Unfortunately for India, this expectations-mismatch is not static but dynamic. And it will be a function of how America’s relations with other centres of world power undergo change.

Though India has managed to keep its political relations with Russia, China and Europe on a more or less even keel, the strains of attachment to Washington can already be seen here and there. Now that the Nuclear Suppliers Group has amended its rules, however, there is no reason why India cannot — to paraphrase the 19th century Austrian diplomatist Schwarzenberg — astonish the world by “the depth of her ingratitude” and deny the U.S. the special consideration it is expecting. In the absence of tension between the big powers, this would be a viable strategy, even if it would require nerves of steel. But as America’s relations with Russia deteriorate, as they surely will under a McCain presidency, India will find it difficult to maintain a policy of strategic promiscuity. Likewise, India will have to weigh its options carefully if U.S. policy towards China under either Mr. McCain or Mr. Obama swings dramatically away from the centre, where it is now, towards either greater confrontation or greater entente. Both these swings could have adverse consequences for India.

As in 2000, when Mr. Bush was elected President, and again in 2004, the Indian elite must not make the mistake of believing what is bad for the world can actually be good for India. The dynamic of international politics is such today that any exacerbation of tension between the major powers or within regions in the extended neighbourhood of India such as East, Central or West Asia and the Caucasus will end up reducing the country’s space for manoeuvre. And under Mr. McCain, such tensions will be a constant factor, especially with his half-baked plan for a ‘concert of democracies.’

This is not to say that an Obama presidency will fully end the pathology of Machtpolitik that has made America such a dangerous country. He is holding out the promise of change, and if he wins it will partly be on the basis of the appeal of that promise. Nevertheless, the future of U.S. foreign policy will be guided by larger considerations of political economy, especially the restructuring of American capital which the current financial crisis has started. Certainly, the fact that Mr. Obama seems as committed to military Keynesianism as Mr. McCain is not a good omen for a world tired of the use of force.

But if Mr. McCain will be worse for the world and India as U.S. President, this does not mean an Obama presidency will not pose a specific set of challenges to New Delhi.

Return of CTBT

Depending on the scale of the wave in Mr. Obama’s favour, the Democrats may well achieve the two-thirds majority they need in the Senate to ratify the CTBT. The Illinois Senator has made no bones about the priority he attaches to the CTBT’s early entry into force. Even without a Democratic clean sweep, the political and military terrain in the U.S. is no longer as hostile to a test ban as it was in 1999 when the Senate rebuffed President Clinton and sent the treaty into cold storage. As such, India would do well to prepare itself for the inevitability of the CTBT coming back on to the international agenda about a year or two from now. U.S. ratification would make Beijing’s formal accession almost inevitable. Would India at that point do what Atal Bihari Vajpayee implied when he told the United Nations as Prime Minister in 1998 that the country would not “stand in the way of the CTBT entering into force”, that is, sign the treaty, as it must, for it to enter into force? Either way, Indian policymakers need to seriously reopen the CTBT docket and prepare a coherent strategy for dealing with this eventuality.

The second major challenge an Obama presidency is likely to pose for India is on the Pakistan front. The Democratic frontrunner has made no bones about what he would do as President if Islamabad is found wanting in its commitment to the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan. Come 2009, there is a sense in which Islamabad is increasingly going to be in Washington’s cross-hairs if it continues to maintain subterranean links with those sections of the Taliban that American military commanders feel they are unable to cut a deal with. The gradual but steady movement of the locus of the ‘war on terror’ eastward, from Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan, may please some observers but the consequences of Pakistan imploding will be extremely negative for Indian security.

A prudential Indian strategy would be one which aims to create incentives for the Pakistani state and military establishment to make the course correction they badly need to make if Pakistan is to survive as a viable nation state. To the extent to which Pakistan’s ambitions and sense of insecurity vis-À-vis India is driving its Afghan policy, New Delhi needs to find ways of working with Islamabad on a broad set of confidence-building measures. Whether Mr. Obama or Mr. McCain, the 44th occupant of the White House is likely to preside over a major expansion of American military power in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Dealing with the reality of that expansion — and seeking its eventual reversal on the basis of stability in Afghanistan — will be a major challenge for Indian diplomacy.