x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

India rests easy with US allies regardless of who wins the poll

As the United States goes to the polls next week, the comfort with which the Indian and US security establishments now deal with each other is both astonishing and apparent.

Barely three weeks after Barack Obama had been elected as the next president of the United States, 10 Pakistani citizens climbed aboard a dinghy to set sail for Mumbai. There, for 62 hours, they unleashed a horror in which 168 people were killed and nearly 300 seriously injured.

As India picked up the pieces after the worst terrorist attack in its history, the country was joined in commiserations by the United States, six of whose citizens were killed in the assault.

Over the last four years, India and the US have cooperated at great length to bring the guilty to book. Pakistani-American citizen David Headley, the man who reconnoitred Mumbai for the Pakistan-based terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba (LiT) that masterminded the operation, was extradited to India for questioning.

In April this year, Washington announced a $10 million (Dh37 million) bounty for information leading to the capture of LiT chief Hafiz Saeed, who continues to operate freely in Pakistan. The Americans also leant on Saudi Arabia to deport Zabiuddin Ansari, an Indian terrorist who assisted LiT leaders in executing the attack. And in August, the United States enacted sanctions freezing the US assets of Sajid Mir and seven other LiT operatives who are accused of roles in plotting and executing the Mumbai attack.

Only 14 years ago, when India conducted its first nuclear test in 1998, the India-US relationship had hit an all-time low. The then-US secretary of state Madeleine Albright described India as having "dug itself into a new hole". Flash forward to 2012, and the United States' help after the Mumbai attacks has pushed the Indian establishment to tilt heavily in favour of Washington.

As one Indian official admitted recently, on condition of anonymity: "In the area of counterterrorism and homeland security, both our countries now do much more than simply talk about the common causes and sources of terrorism. These issues are now largely settled between us. In fact, when we talk to each other, we just have to look at each other to know what the other side is going to say, or suggest we do."

As the United States goes to the polls again next week, the comfort with which the Indian and US security establishments now deal with each other is both astonishing and apparent. Interestingly, it is also bipartisan.

It was during the Republican administration of former president George W Bush that Washington began to dismantle the Cold War security architecture, and admitted India into the select group of nuclear-armed nations, despite its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

That resulted in the Indo-US nuclear deal - signed by the Obama administration - in which the US promised to end decades of sanctions and assist India with nuclear technology.

Some of the mood music is because of the growing influence of three million Indian-Americans in US politics, business and government. This year, six Indian Americans are running for Congress, while dozens are contesting state legislatures. Rising stars such as Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, have assumed prominence on the national political stage. Toby Chaudhuri, a Washington political strategist, told The Washington Post that it was "no longer about writing cheques to gain access. We realise we need to use politics to gain a say in government".

But if the Indian-American community provides some comfort to the relationship, it is India's size, population and democratic credentials that most appeals to the United States. The world's only superpower is stretched across the globe and, given the so-called "pivot" towards Asia, it has a keen interest in maintaining its influence on a continent that is not lacking in authoritarian governments.

With China verging on great-power status, the United States has courted Japan and India, among other allies, to influence the balance of power in the region. Many analysts see Mr Obama's "return to Asia" (despite the US withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan) as a signal to Beijing that Washington does not intend to relinquish its sphere of influence on the continent.

Indian officials say they have no intention of responding publicly to US overtures on reining in China, pointing out that there is too much at stake with the relationship with Beijing. But there is no denying that New Delhi gains great comfort from having a friendly American presence in the shadows as it undertakes its own panda diplomacy.

As for Afghanistan, the US hopes - irrespective of who is in the White House - that India will play a constructive role as the US plans to withdraw in 2014.

The truth is that India doesn't really care who sleeps in the White House, although the liberal elite generally prefers Mr Obama to Mr Romney. After all, India's overriding security concern - terrorism stemming from Pakistani soil - is complemented by US anger at what it believes is the Pakistani establishment's duplicity in the war against the Taliban.

Mr Obama began four years ago planning to appoint a special envoy to the "AfPakIndia" region, but was persuaded to drop "India" from the unhyphenated abbreviation. India clearly has a special status now.

Two years ago when the US president came to New Delhi, he promised that the United States would support India as a permanent member in an expanded Security Council. This is the one area where little progress has been made - and is unlikely to be made - which might dent Indians' opinion of Mr Obama ahead of the election.


Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi

On Twitter: @jomalhotra