The decision to invite US President Barack Obama to be the chief guest at the 66th Republic Day is the clearest indicator of the directions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategic outlook.
An assertive China under the leadership of Xi Jinping is seeking to re-draw the geopolitical landscape of Asia backed by a modernised PLA and the massive cash reserves of the country. India’s ally Russia is drifting into the Chinese camp.
New Delhi has so far been somnolent, but now, with a new and vigorous Government, it is staking out its response.
This is evident to those reading between the lines of official statements and comments made during the official visits of Modi to Japan, the US and Australia in recent months. Remarkably, till now, not a single American leader has ever been invited as the chief guest for Republic Day.
We have had the Chinese — Marshal Ye Jianying in 1958, and even the Pakistanis, Ghulam Mohammed in 1955 and Rana Abdul Hamid in 1965 — and of course, the Soviets, British, French and others, but never an American.
This was clearly no oversight, but a statement of India’s world view. Well, that world view is now changing. The decision to dump hidebound attitudes is very much in keeping with Modi’s “out of the box” approach in policy-making.
This was first evident in Modi’s invitation to all SAARC leaders to attend his swearing-in. Subsequently, he followed this up with close interactions with America’s two key Asia-Pacific allies Japan and Australia.
It was also marked by the showmanship visible in the public meetings with Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in New York and Sydney which helped focus minds in Washington and Canberra.
There should be no doubt in any mind that these two countries march lockstep with the Americans and all our initiatives with them, especially those related to nuclear and strategic issues will come to nought, unless Washington is on board.
Actually, to be more accurate, the issue was more about India coming on board the American-led initiatives to coordinate a response to the rise of China.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee recognised this when he spoke of the US and India as “natural allies”. Subsequently, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice privately declared that the US was ready to help India become a great power in the 21st century. Since 2010, Beijing’s growing assertion has been causing disquiet in many Asian capitals. It is to address this that the US announced a “pivot” to Asia, later rechristened “rebalance.”
Though India was facing its own pressures along the entire length of its 4,000km border with China, New Delhi chose to stick it out alone and try and work out an accommodation with Beijing.Towards this end, it accepted the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in October 2013 and accepted China’s invitation for a Maritime Security Dialogue.
But the events in September 2014, when supreme leader Xi Jinping’s visit was accompanied by a show of force by the PLA in Chumur, convinced New Delhi that the Chinese policy had a depth and purpose which required a new and more sophisticated response.
Towards that end, India has adopted a stance of cooperation and competition with China, manifested by its decision to be party to the Chinese-sponsored initiatives like the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, even while enhancing its own defence infrastructure and reaching out to countries wary of Beijing.
India’s relations with the US have zig-zagged since the mid 1990s when Robin Raphel and Bill Clinton sought to pummel New Delhi on the score of non-proliferation and Kashmir. They reached their nadir with the nuclear tests of 1998, but the Talbott-Jaswant Singh dialogue led to Bill Clinton reaching out to India in the last years of his presidency.
The George W. Bush era (2001-09) was an Indian-American love fest culminating in the Indo-US nuclear deal which no one but Bush and the Republicans could have delivered.But thereafter, under Obama, and the paralysis afflicting the UPA-II government in New Delhi, things were allowed to drift.
Obama may be a lame duck, but it is the American system we are engaging, and it is clear in word and deed that Washington has now come to accept the centrality of India to any future Asian pivot or re-balance.Mail Today November 23, 2014