India and the United States are drifting apart. No, it is not just because of the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s arrest in New York on 12 December, 2013.
The Khobragade case is not the elephant in the room for Indo-US relations. This case is just a symptom of the malaise that has gripped Indo-US bilateral relations and not the malaise itself.
The fact is that the malaise in Indo-US ties set in long before that, though it is not clear that the Americans pulled the trigger on Khobragade because of other sticky issues in an attempt to teach the Indians a lesson. However, it is possible, and here’s why.
India and the US, the world’s largest and most powerful democracies respectively, have been working on cross purposes on two contentious issues, both relating to India’s prime national security interests in its backyard: Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
The Americans have been quite worked up on the Bangladesh general elections which were held on 5 January, 2014, despite a total boycott from the main opposition party – the Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) - and its major ally Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh.
The US was quite perturbed over India’s support of Khaleda Zia’s arch political foe, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and pressured India to persuade Sheikh Hasina (a known of friend India) to defer elections and accommodate Begum Zia in the political process at Zia’s terms.
The US envoy in Bangladesh Dan Mozenna paid an unusual visit to India in the last week of October 2013 and held closed-door talks with top Indian diplomats, including National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon, on 27 October. His primary objective was to use India’s good offices in persuading Sheikh Hasina to defer the Bangladesh polls till such time major political players in Bangladesh arrive at a common ground.
India refused to play ball. The Indians could not stomach Washington’s support of Khaleda Zia, during whose prime ministerial tenure anti-India insurgent forces had thrived on Bangladeshi soil. Khaleda Zia has been seen by India as a stooge of rival Pakistan.
India could not afford to score an own-goal by shackling Sheikh Hasina and strengthening the hands of known India-baiter Begum Khaleda Zia. After all, it was during the tenure of Zia that her interior minister had warned India not to forget that the Indian northeastern region was “Bangladesh-locked.”
This land-locked country is another reason for serious Indo-US differences. Afghan President Hamid Karzai landed in India on 12 December, 2013 – a few hours before the Obama administration arrested Devyani Khobragade in New York.
This was Karzai’s 14th visit to India and his third in 2013. But by the time he had landed in New Delhi and held talks with his top Indian interlocutors, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it was quite clear which way his trip was headed.
The Americans had been pressuring the Indians to use their influence over Karzai, an increasingly stubborn customer for Washington, and persuade him to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US, which would allow the American troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014.
Washington had been pushing the envelope with Kabul for quite some time over the BSA issue, but had been unsuccessful. Turning to India for help was the Americans’ Plan B.
This was evident by the averments of James Dobbins, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. A week before Karzai reached India, Dobbins testified before a Senate committee in Washington wherein he expressed hope that India would persuade Karzai to sign the BSA.
Dobbins said the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan would push the country into civil war and warned that such a scenario would lead to a "rise in extremist groups, outflow of refugees and disruptions in commerce that would threaten the region as a whole."
The American diplomat even took recourse to some harsh words and cautioned Karzai thus: "We try to tell him that American opinion isn't exactly where he thinks it is and that he is playing with fire."
Dobbins also made clear what Washington was looking forward to from Karzai’s impending visit to New Delhi and remarked: "His upcoming visit to India could, I think, be quite influential, because he highly respects and has good relations with the Indian government."
The Americans wanted Karzai to fall in line and sign the BSA by 31 December, 2013. The agreement has still not been signed and Karzai has bluntly told the Americans that he won’t be signing on the dotted line as the Americans expect him to.
Thus, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are two prime examples of the Americans and the Indians seeming to employ different gambits on the strategic chessboard. The two democracies are simply not on the same page.
On the contrary, India has solid support of Russia on the issue of Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Even China is closer to India’s stand on Afghanistan than it is to the US.
Both Russia and China are with the Indians and differing with the Americans primarily because of their concerns about the deadly web of Islamist terrorism that the American policies may weave for the region.
Russia, in fact, is going even a step further. The Russians (as are the Chinese) are averse to the scenario of Afghanistan once again falling into the hands of terrorist and fundamentalist forces.
India and Russia are now working on a deal which would ensure Russian military hardware reaching Afghanistan to fight terrorist forces while India pays for these military supplies.
A new strategic paradigm is rapidly evolving in India’s backyard. The American influence in the region is clearly waning while the RIC (Russia, India, China) stars are on the ascendance.
Yes, the Indo-US gulf is widening.
Rajeev Sharma for RT
Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi-based columnist and strategic analyst who tweets @Kishkindha. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org