Is the health of Indo-US relations dependent on who rules in New Delhi and Washington DC? This question is coming to the minds of many as the United States witnesses vicious electoral campaigns by Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for the world’s most powerful office at the White House this November. Will Trump be better for India? Or, will it be Hillary? Is a Republican Presidency better for India than a democratic one? Or, is a Democratic US President more considerate to Indian interests than a Republican one?
However, I do not want to be a part of this discussion. Because, I do not want to overreact when Trump talks for protectionism and against immigration or for that matter when he says that “By the way, India is doing great. Nobody talks about it. I have big jobs going up in India. But India is doing great.” Nor for that matter I am over-enthused when people say that Hillary is a known and “proven” friend of India. On the other hand, I am equally unimpressed by the argument that the upswing in Indo-US ties is due to the advent of Narendra Modi in Delhi’s Raisina Hills.
India and the USA ceased to be “Estranged Democracies” (the famous book written by former US diplomat Dennis Kux after the end of the Cold War). Irrespective of who has been power in Delhi and Washington since then, the two countries have been moving forward. Indo-U.S. relations are no longer a hostage to U.S.-Pakistani and Indo-Soviet relations. Indo-US annual trade is now worth more than $100 billion a year. There are now closer economic ties and collaborations between the two, and that includes ambitious schemes on energy augmentations. Not only a leading American company is going to collaborate on six nuclear energy reactors in India, the two countries have also agreed to establish the “U.S.-India Catalytic Solar Finance Programme.”
Strategically speaking, the two countries share concerns over the Islamic fundamentalism, global terror networks, unending conflict in Afghanistan and a truculent China. There is now increased cooperation between the two countries’ military and intelligence establishments. High-level visits have become commonplace. In fact, as I write this, there is a unique coincidence that while the US Secretary of State Jon Kerry is in New Delhi, Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar is in Washington DC. Incidentally, India and the United States have just signed the hitherto unthinkable bilateral logistics exchange memorandum of agreement (LEMOA), which will facilitate additional opportunities for practical engagement and exchange.”
LEMOA is the India-specific version of the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) that the US has with many of its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies. Under this Agreement, the US agrees to provide Logistics Support, Supplies and Services (LSSS) to military forces to countries or organisations in return for the reciprocal provision of logistics support, supplies and services by such governments or organisations to the US military forces. The LEMOA would come into picture during joint military exercises, training requirements, deployments, unforeseen emergencies, exigent circumstances, peacekeeping and disaster relief operations, and wartime needs as well as exercises to correct logistic deficiencies which cannot be met by a nation on its own, according to available literature. It will provide military commanders’ “enhanced operational readiness and cost effective mutual support”. It means that the military personnel of India and the US can use each other’s equipment (mentioned under LSSS), including food, water, clothing, medical services, accommodation, transportation, petroleum, oils, lubricants, storage services, communication services, and base operations support. Importantly, all these are paid-services, that is, the country using other’s facilities will bear the economic cost.
India has already been designated as “a major defence partner of the United States”, thus adding teeth to the two countries’ 2012 creation of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). Being a major defence partner is a framework that is supposed to facilitate innovative and advanced opportunities in defence technology and trade cooperation between India and the US.
All these things have happened under both the Republican and Democratic Administrations and in times that have seen both the Congress and BJP dominated governments in New Delhi. I do not see any scenario in near future that will reverse this trend irrespective of whether Modi remains in power in India or Trump comes to power in the United States. And here, one factor has played a significant role –the ascendancy of the Indian- Americans both in number and profile in the United States. Indian- Americans have been continuously outpacing every ethnic group socioeconomically to reach the summit of the US Census charts. They have attained the highest educational levels of all ethnic groups in the US. According to Wikipedia, 71 per cent of all Indians have a bachelor’s or high degree (compared to 28 per cent nationally and 44 per cent average for all Asian American groups). Almost 40 per cent of all Indians in the United States have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree. After all, the best and brightest students in India emigrate to America.
A study from Pew Research Centre has shown that 80 per cent of Indians were holding college or advanced degrees, surpassing the previously Taiwanese average figure of 74.1 per cent. In fact, the percentage of the number of Indian- Americans who have a master’s, doctorate or other professional degree is five times the national average in America. What all this means is that these high profiled Indian -Americans, having best professional jobs, constitute a huge constituency for India which no American government or business can ignore. If this constituency happens to be in love with Modi (which is the case) then neither Trump nor Hillary will find it hard to overlook India as the President of the United States.
India and the United States have everything to gain as close partners, if not allies, given their shared ideals of democracy, pluralistic ways of life, equality and justice. If India is the largest democracy, then the America is the most powerful and arguably the oldest. And yet if they had been estranged, it is also because of their democratic systems. Ironical it may sound, but the fact remains that both being democracies mean that there are institutional bottlenecks, resulting in complex and slow decision-making systems. As American scholar Joseph Nye has said, “There is protectionism in all democracies. Both India and the United States face pressures from vested interests which prevent the two countries from reaching levels of the trade and investment that otherwise would be beneficial to both parties. There are various industries and economic areas where the United States and India have not always seen eye to eye. Another potential source of friction would be if the United States and India took different positions on regional interests”.
Obviously, the two governments have a lot to do for overcoming these inherent challenges, irrespective of which parties they belong to, whether in India or in the United States. In the ultimate analysis it all boils down to how each of the two governments positions itself as a partner that is valuable enough to the other. In fact, my friend Prof. Amit Gupta, who teaches in the United States, has an interesting explanation on the direction of the Indo-US relations. According to him, “ It is important to keep in mind that there are five India-U.S. relationships: the government to government relationship; the military to military relationship; the one between Bangalore and Silicon Valley; the one between Indian students and American universities; and finally, the one between the Indian diaspora and India. Of these the first two are the ones on which the Indian government pins the most hopes but these are also the most problematic. The India-U.S. relationship has improved significantly since the bad days following the 1998 nuclear tests but they have plateaued at the political and military levels. What Mr. Modi needs to do, therefore, is to push the development of the other three sets of relationships that are both far less complicated to foster and much more.”
By Prakash Nanda