• Friday, August 22, 2014

BYLINE

Washington smells the saffron

M.J. Akbar

THE news item flickered warily somewhere in the middle of NBC's morning bulletin on Friday, February 28, almost as if the editors were wary of including it. A dead man had come alive. A major channel such as NBC would not have used “dead” without checking, or “alive” without confirmation. Mourners were taking the corpse to its destination when it began to kick within the coffin. The anchors, who looked as astonished as the mourners must have, described it as a miracle, and then quickly moved on to the comfort zone of the weather: icy winds in minus-zero temperatures under blue, sunlit skies. No miracle has been hailed with such embarrassment.
But there is a moral to this story. Never give up hope until the body is buried. Relations between India and America have slipped into a coma, but there is a long way to the graveyard.
A small but determined lobby within American academy and media, which influenced attitudes if not policy towards India, is at long last beginning to accept that Narendra Modi's march towards Delhi cannot be stopped or sabotaged. One of its achievements was the continued denial of a visa to Modi. It never raised any questions about a visa to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, although she has been indicted by an American court for an alleged role in the 1984 riots.
The extensive opinion poll done by the American organisation, Pew, has been a crucial input. The results have just been published, but data had begun to filter into conversation over the last few weeks. This poll gave Modi an unprecedented 63% support against 19% for Congress. Washington trusts the integrity of Pew.
Then there was the growing evidence from the inclinations of small parties in the Indian electoral mix, who by themselves could not achieve much but whose vote shares make a winning difference when attached to principal magnets. In 2004 and 2009, they were largely with Congress and UPA. This year, the gravitational pull has been in the other direction. For two months in Bihar the talk has been of a revival of the Lalu Yadav-Ram Vilas Paswan-Congress triumvirate. When push came to shove, it was the BJP that had stitched together a decisive partnership of two parties. Big boys can be wrong, inflated as they are in ego and self-worth. Small parties cannot afford to err.
Washington has woken up and started to smell the saffron.
It is hardly a secret that President Barack Obama has lost what limited interest he might have once had in India. His Asian priorities are to the east and west of India. He continues to invest heavily in the China relationship because of its value to the American economy. India brings nothing to the economic table.


Obama remains committed to withdrawal from Afghanistan, for which he needs the cooperation of Pakistan. India probably has greater potential role after America leaves, but that is a role which will be defined by the future.
Obama's most significant initiative is the extraordinary effort to normalise relations with Iran. He knows that this is one for the history books, apart from the immediate and dramatic geopolitical implications. India could have served as a supplementary bridgehead, but that needed trust, which had evaporated.
Instead, the powerful group of American bureaucrats and politicians, who shaped the nuclear deal with India, are advertising a feeling of betrayal. In their estimation, India has not lived up to the unspoken part of the arrangement. No one has hurt Indo-American relations more than Defence Minister A.K. Antony, who eliminated the American bid to sell fighter planes at an early stage. Those with a memory recall another left-leaning politician from Kerala, Krishna Menon. If Antony has a case, he and his envoys have not done a good job of explaining it.
The curious incident of Devyani Khobragade's underpaid maid was a minor event that became major because establishments in both Delhi and Washington chose it as a battleground for hostility that had accrued on other issues. Five years ago, such a problem would have been sorted out with minimal fuss.
Relations between India and America have not deteriorated into disrepair, but they have become dangerously untidy. They need to be aired and laundered and ironed back into shape with a transparency that only good friends can afford. The present unease between two nations who can become important partners in zones of serious tension, and who share core values and interests, is illogical and unnecessary. It is immature to sulk.
Nor will course correction require a miracle. Obama will still have two years of administration left when there is, as projected by Pew, a change of government in Delhi by May. Change is an opportunity. The best thing to do with the immediate past is to put it behind us. Both capitals need to craft a new initiative that revives a momentum that once promised so much, but has been allowed to lapse.

The writer is Editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.

Published: 12:00 am Thursday, March 06, 2014

Last modified: 8:06 pm Wednesday, March 05, 2014

TAGS: India America Devyani Khobragade President Barack Obama BJP Congress Narendra Modi NBC

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